Skip to main content
Updated:
Original:

Know what microplastics are? You're probably drinking them

U of M research confirms they're in tap water around the world

Scientists have been telling us in recent years that tiny bits of plastic are showing up more often in our lakes and oceans. 

Now a new study says those microplastics are in most of our tap water, too. They were in 94 percent of the samples from around the U.S analyzed by a University of Minnesota researcher and other experts. 

They're not sure yet what this means for the health of people (or of fish, animals, and oceans) but some experts worry it's a bad sign. 

The new project was put together by a nonprofit news organization called Orb Media. They worked with researchers from the U of M and the State University of New York on their new report called Invisibles: The Plastic Inside Us.

What did they find?

They tested tap water in more than 150 cities and towns across five different continents. 

Altogether, 83 percent of the water samples tested positive for microplastics. Here's their breakdown from around the world:

Some pretty all-American places have plastic in their water, the study found. The U.S. Capitol, the Trump Grill in New York, even the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency all had microplastics coming out of the taps.

While we knew these particles were in lakes and oceans, finding them in our tap water does raise the stakes some. For one thing, it means they're also in a lot of our food, the report points out. Most bread, pasta, soup, and baby formula are all likely to have a little bit of plastic in them. 

What are these particles?

Here are two important things to know about plastic: it's all around us and it's more or less indestructible. 

Plastic is used in lots of things people make. Your cell phone, your shoes, most of your clothes, your contact lenses – all of them have some plastic in them.

While an apple core or orange peel eventually breaks down and returns to the earth, plastic doesn't ever fully disappear, the Orb Media report says. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, some as tiny as a nanometer

So particles that come off our clothes, shoes, or carpets eventually get washed down a drain. One thing the new study confirms is our water treatment plants don't filter them out, so plastics pass right into our drinking water. 

According to Orb Media's report, no one knows of a way to filter microplastics out of water. 

Is this bad for us?

The short answer is we don't know what the effects of these plastic fibers are. But some scientists are concerned it could be bad. 

The report says there's evidence the plastic bits soak up toxic chemicals in the water – and then release them when they're ingested by a fish or mammal. When they're inside a human, some microplastics are small enough to pass right through intestinal walls into body organs. 

So one priority for scientists right now is to learn more about these things. 

At the federal level, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is leading that research. The United Nations is studying it, too. 

Microplastics big enough that you can see them (about a millimeter long) are floating on Lake Superior, according to Minnesota Sea Grant, which is monitoring them.

Next Up

Dalvin Cook

Report: Dalvin Cook has dislocated shoulder, will undergo MRI

The Vikings running back was carted off the field in Sunday's loss to the 49ers.

Kirk Cousins

Watch: Kirk Cousins lines up under guard on critical 4th down play

Kirk Cousins went "Full Kirk" at the worst possible time.

Dalvin Cook

Dalvin Cook injured, Vikings drop crucial game against 49ers

The Vikings couldn't stop the Niners' rushing attack in a 34-26 loss.

Flickr - police lights squad siren - Edward Kimmel

Man airlifted to a hospital after police shooting in Forest Lake

Police allege that the man presented a threat to officers.

Minnesota Wild

Wild's two third-period goals take down the Lightning

Ryan Hartman's go-ahead goal defeated the two-time defending champions.

Byron Buxton

Reports: Twins reach extension with Byron Buxton

The long-term deal locks in one of the Twins' franchise players.

Justin Jefferson

Vikings-49ers: 5 things you can count on

Sunday's matchup is a pivotal game in the NFC playoff picture.

Gopher Football

Watch: Gophers troll Badgers with 'Jump Around' after Saturday's win

First they took Paul Bunyan's Axe. Then they took their tradition.

Brandon Richart, missing person

Search underway for missing man in Anoka area

Brandon Richart was last seen Nov. 17.

U.S. Bank Stadium

5 teams win first state championships at Prep Bowl

A pair of records fell as the Prep Bowl lived up to the hype.

Related

Raking leaves? Why not just mow them instead?

A U of M researcher says letting your mower chop up the leaves fertilizes your lawn and helps cut down on weeds.

Road salt melts the ice – and then it pollutes the lakes, a new study says

Researchers say if current trends don't change, a lot of lakes could be too polluted for fish 50 years from now.

What are they thankful for at the kids' table?

We're grateful for the answers kids give when asked what they're thankful for

What are they thankful for at the kids' table?

We're grateful for the answers kids give when asked what they're thankful for

Social security numbers stolen from Equifax, and you're probably affected

The huge data breach was discovered in July and confirmed on Thursday.

The measles outbreak is over; here's what we learned

79 people got sick this year; here's what we learned.

A Fargo boy used his Xbox savings to pay for a village's well (guess what he just got)

After the 9-year-old changed his mind about how to spend the money he'd been saving, he was rewarded with a gift