How to reduce the amount of microplastics we consume

Boiling water is an ancient and effective way to deal with water-borne diseases, but it may also help in the battle against microplastics, new research has shown.

Microplastics are in rain, our rivers, the air and our food (Getty)
Microplastics are in rain, our rivers, the air and our food (Getty)

Boiling drinking water is an ancient and effective way to deal with water-borne diseases, but it may also help in the battle against microplastics, new research has shown.

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size, which scientists believe can harm wildlife - and may pose health risks to humans. Nanoplastics are even smaller, as tiny as one-thousandth of a millimetre in size.

New research published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters has shown that boiling and filtering water may lower the amount of some microplastics people are exposed to by more than 80%.

The study looked into possible ways of treating nano or microplastics (NMPs) found in tap water that have escaped from centralised water treatment systems.

"Drinking boiled water, an ancient tradition in some Asian countries, is supposedly beneficial for human health, as boiling can remove some chemicals and most biological substances", the researchers wrote. "However, it remains unclear whether boiling is effective in removing NMPs in tap water."

The study found that after boiling the samples for five minutes and then leaving them to cool there was at least an 80% reduction in some microplastics - namely polystyrene, polyethylene, and polypropylene - in harder water.

Researchers added: "This simple boiling-water strategy can 'decontaminate' NMPs from household tap water and has the potential for harmlessly alleviating human intake of NMPs through water consumption."

Fish and plastic pollution in sea. Microplastics contaminate seafood. Animals in the sea cannot live, San Diego Bay, California, USA.
Microplastics have been found in meats, fish and in water and even in the remotest part of Antarctica (Getty)

A World Health Organization report in 2022 warned there is "convincing evidence" that NMPs are distributed across the planet.

It cautioned that any estimate of total human exposure to nano-microplastics (NMPS) would be "highly speculative and inconclusive" due to a lack of evidence. However, it refuted any conclusion suggesting exposure to NMPs is “safe” and said more research is needed to improve our understanding of the issue.

The WHO noted an overwhelming consensus that plastics do not belong in the environment, and that measures should be taken to mitigate exposure.

Other reports have also highlighted the growing concern of how much plastic can be found in the human body.

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that microscopic and nanoscopic pieces of plastic lodged in the fatty deposits that line human arteries may be linked with higher risks for heart disease, strokes, and death.

In the report in The New England Journal of Medicine, Italian researchers noted that such microplastics have been found in drinking water, a large range of foods, cosmetic products, and the air. While the study cannot prove the plastic caused patients’ adverse events, it is the first to link the tiny particles with cardiovascular disease outcomes in humans

In October 2023, there were reports of microplastics being found in human breast milk for the first time, while another report in March 2022 found evidence of them in human blood.

In 2020, a study in the US found that 98% of wet and dry environmental samples taken from protected sites in the US - including from very remote areas - were contaminated with microplastics.

Microplastics have even been found in Antarctica and the deepest parts of the ocean.

How much plastic is in the environment in Britain?

Tiny particles of microplastic are already polluting every lake and river in Britain, posing as-yet-unknown risks to wildlife, scientists have warned.

Even remote bodies of water such as Loch Lomond are polluted with plastic particles.

Researchers from Bangor University and Friends of the Earth collected water samples from rivers, reservoirs and lochs in England, Scotland and Wales. Every single sample contained plastic, with the River Tame in Greater Manchester having more than 1,000 particles per litre - and Loch Lomond having 2.4 particles per litre.

Ullswater in the Lake District had 29.5 shards of microplastic per litre.

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Editor's note: This article was updated on 13 March to remove a reference to human's consuming a credit card's worth of plastic every week after a press release from a scientific journal was corrected on 12 March.