Majority of French bottled water brands contaminated by microplastics

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© AFP/Boris Horvat
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A French study published this week shows that 78 percent of bottled mineral water analysed contains microplastics. The organisation Agir pour l'environnement is calling for a ban on plastic bottles within five years.

The results of a study called "We drink plastic" (Nous buvons du plastique) released on Thursday by Agir pour l'environnement show that, of nine bottles of mineral water analysed, seven were found to contain microplastics.

The best-selling bottled waters in France were analysed by the Breton public laboratory Labocea. The particles found include polyethylene terephthalates (used in plastic bottles) and polyethylene (used in the bottle caps).

These microplastics are particles smaller than 5 millimetres and were generally found in small quantities. Worringly, the water specifically marketed "for children" (Vittel kids) had a concentration twenty times higher than the others.

"The contamination comes from the packaging, whether it's the bottle, the cap or the lid," explains Magali Ringoot from the association Agir pour l'environnement. Plastic has no place in bottled water. Additives are subject to industrial secrecy so we don't know exactly what chemical cocktail we are exposed to."

Indeed, the plastic in the cap or bottle can break up into micro debris and spread in the water. When subjected to intense heat and light, the containers could release even greater quantities of microplastics.

According to Nathalie Gontard, a packaging specialist at the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (Inrae), "plastic degrades inexorably and it starts to break down even before we start consuming the water."

In France, 83 percent of people consume bottled water. In 2019, they consumed 133 litres of bottled water per capita, 8.9 billion litres for the entire French population.

On average, people ingest five grams of plastic every week, equivalent to "the weight of a credit card", through the water they drink and various food products.

Widespread contamination of water

In March 2018, the publication of an American study caused a stir: for the first time, the systematic and worldwide contamination of bottled water by microplastics was brought to light. Microplastics were detected in 93 percent of the 250 bottles analysed from 11 brands in 9 different countries.

In 2019, the World Health Organisation published a report entitled "Microplastics in drinking water" in which it officially recognised the phenomenon of widespread contamination of water in rivers and oceans, inevitably reaching domestic supplies.

The organisation says that it is difficult to evaluate the health risks posed by microplastics, because of an insufficient number of studies.

However, research on animals is not very reassuring and suggests that the ingestion of plastic micro and nanoparticles has an adverse effect on the intestinal microbiota, the metabolism or even the brain.

Call to end single-use packaging

As water bottles are single-use packaging, they will fall within the scope of the French government's goal of eliminating such packaging by 2040.

But Agir pour l'environnement has called for a ban on single-use plastics within five years, targeting packaging, responsible for 45 percent of plastic use, as a priority.

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