Measuring microplastics in drinking water - a world first

Image: RephiLe water

The question of exactly how much microplastic is in our drinking water could soon be answered, thanks to a world-first project to standardise the way it is tested and reported.

Research into the consequences of ingesting these tiny plastic fragments is still in its infancy. No one knows how widespread microplastics in drinking water really is or what dose may be “safe” to consume. Until now.

With concerns mounting over the potential impact microplastics have on the environment and human health, a joint project in California, US, has developed new standardised method to measure the menace of microplastics.

The project, that has taken two years, will for the first time allow environmental laboratories to conduct standardised microplastic tests and share their findings. Initially the method is focused on testing rivers, aqueducts and reservoirs that supply a large portion of the public's drinking water, however the scope to expand these methods is under development.

"If you can measure something, you can manage it."

Scott Coffin, California State Water Resources Control Board

The project is being carried out by the California State Water Resources Control Board, in partnership with the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project.

“Now that we can measure microplastics consistently from one lab to the next, we have the foundation to begin gathering data and determining the impacts,” said Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Board. “Having the first standardised method in the world shows the commitment California has to find out as much as possible about microplastics so we can continue to protect human health and safeguard the environment.”

The Southern California Coastal Water Research Project collaborated with leading researchers to select viable methods and instruments for testing microplastics in drinking water and then carried out real-world testing at 22 laboratories in six countries.

Now the testing is complete, the researchers say the results can be used to find strong protocols for standardised microplastics testing - with a view they could be rolled out worldwide.

“This really is a big step for determining whether or not microplastics are a problem for human health,” added Scott Coffin, a research scientist with the State Water Board who helped develop the new methodology. “There’s an old adage that if you can measure something, you can manage it. By having a standardised method, we can determine if we are being exposed at significant quantities that might be relevant to our health.”