How much plastic is there in your packaged water?

Packaged water can be a lifeline for many of the 2.1 billion people worldwide with unsafe drinking water   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The mercury sprints past 30°C most days on Brazil’s world-famous Copacabana Beach.

Marcio Silva has trudged uncounted miles there, selling relief in the form of cold bottled water.

“I drink water because water is life, water is health, water is everything,” said Silva (51). “I drink it and sell it to others. I don’t want to sell something bad to people.”

Bottled water is marketed as the very essence of purity. It's the fastest-growing beverage market in the world, valued at US$147 billion per year.

But new research by Orb Media, a non-profit journalism organisation based in Washington, D.C., shows that a single bottle can hold dozens or possibly even thousands of microscopic plastic particles.

Tests on more than 250 bottles from 11 brands reveal contamination with plastic including polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Water mark
  • Orb Media conducts tests on more than 250 bottles from 11 brands
  • The study reveals contamination with plastic, including polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  • Two leading brands confirm their products contained microplastic, but said Orb's study significantly overstates the amount
  • Tests conducted for Orb at the State University of New York reveal a global average of 10.4 plastic particles a litre
  • Samples came from 19 locations in nine countries on five continents. Some bottles had effectively zero plastic. One contained more than 10,000 particles a litre. Plastic found in 93% of the samples

When contacted by reporters, two leading brands confirmed their products contained micro-plastic, but they said Orb’s study significantly overstates the amount.

For plastic particles in the 100 micron, or 0.10 millimetre size range, tests conducted for Orb at the State University of New York revealed a global average of 10.4 plastic particles per litre. These particles were confirmed as plastic using an industry standard infra-red microscope.

The tests also showed a much greater number of even smaller particles that researchers said are also likely plastic. The global average for these particles was 314.6 per litre.

Samples came from 19 locations in nine countries on five continents. Some bottles had effectively zero plastic. One contained more than 10,000 particles per litre.

We found plastic in 93 per cent of the samples.

“This is shocking,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program. “Please name one human being on the entire planet who wants plastic in his or her bottle.”

Peggy Apter certainly doesn’t. “It's disheartening,” said Apter, a real estate investor in Carmel, Indiana, who drinks only bottled water. “What's the world come to? Why can't we have just clean, pure water?”

Packaged water can be a lifeline for many of the 2.1 billion people worldwide with unsafe drinking water. Some 4,000 children die every day from water-borne diseases, according to the United Nations.

Yet many who do have safe tap water still choose bottled because they think it's cleaner, find it more convenient or prefer the taste. Bottled water output will soon hit 300 billion litres a year.

Scientists and governments are increasingly concerned about micro-plastic pollution. Recent studies have found micro-plastic — particles smaller than 5 millimetres — in the oceans, soil, air, lakes, and rivers.

But plastic’s final frontier may be the human body.

Last year, Orb Media revealed microscopic plastic in global tap water samples.

Today's study is “a very illuminative example of how intimate our contact with plastic is,” said Martin Wagner, a toxicologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Micro-plastics are “probably in our tissues,” said Jane Muncke, managing director at the Food Packaging Forum, a Swiss research organization. “I’m sure they’re in mine.”

What this means for human health is unknown.

“Based on current knowledge, which is very fragmentary and incomplete, there is little health concern,” Wagner said. “The human body is well-adapted to dealing with non-digestible particles.”

As much as 90 percent of micro-plastic that is consumed might be excreted, a 2016 European Union report on plastic in seafood said.

Of the other ten percent, some plastic under 150 microns (0.15 millimetres) could enter the gut's lymphatic system, or pass from the bloodstream to the kidneys or liver, according the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Today’s bottled water study found plastic within that range.

But assumptions about how plastic behaves in the gut come from scientific models, not laboratory studies, Muncke said.

“We don't even know all the chemicals in plastics,” Muncke said. “There's so many unknowns here.”

Bottled water manufacturers emphasised their products met all government requirements.

Gerolsteiner, a German bottler, said its tests “have come up with a significantly lower quantity of micro-particles per litre,” than found in Orb’s study.

Nestle tested six bottles from three locations after an inquiry from Orb Media. Those tests, said Nestle Head of Quality Frederic de Bruyne, showed between zero and five plastic particles per liter.

None of the other bottlers agreed to make public results of their tests for plastic contamination.

“We stand by the safety of our bottled water products,” the American Beverage Association said in a statement.

Anca Paduraru, a food safety spokeswoman for the European Commission, said that while micro-plastic is not directly regulated in bottled water, “legislation makes clear there must be no contaminants.” The U.S. doesn’t have specific rules for micro-plastic in food and beverages.

Some consumers were shocked by Orb's discovery. Others were confident plastic wouldn't harm them.

“I feel cheated,” said Arnold Kokonya (23), a graphic design student in Nairobi, Kenya. “But then, at the same time, I feel safe.”

“Actually, I'm surprised,” said Norma Navarrete (36), a soprano who sips bottled water before performing with the Tijuana Opera in Mexico. “I mean, you drink it every day.”

The study was supervised by Professor Sherri Mason, a leading micro-plastic researcher at the State University of New York in Fredonia. Mason also managed Orb's 2017 tap water study.

To test bottled water, Mason's team first infused each bottle with a dye called Nile Red, an emerging method used by scientists for the rapid detection of micro-plastic. The water was then filtered to 1.5 microns, or 0.0015 millimetres — smaller than a human red blood cell.

Under a microscope, in the blue glare of a crime-scene investigation light, and viewed through orange goggles, the dyed plastic particles on each filter glow like tiny embers.

Mason analysed bigger particles, about 100 microns (0.10 millimetres), by Fourier-Transform Infra-red spectroscopy, which beams infra-red light into an object to read its molecular signature.

Polypropylene, used in bottle caps, made up 54 percent of those larger particles. Nylon was 16 percent. PET, used in bottles, was six percent. The majority of samples came in plastic bottles. Water in glass bottles also held micro-plastic.

Fluorescing particles that were too small to be analysed by FTIR should be called “probable micro-plastic,” said Andrew Mayes, senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of East Anglia, because “some of it might be another, unknown, substance to which Nile Red stain is adhering.” Mayes developed the Nile Red method for identifying micro-plastic.

De Bruyne, of Nestle, noted that Mason’s tests did not include a step in which biological substances are removed from the sample. Therefore, he said, some of the fluorescing particles could be false positives — natural material that the Nile Red had also stained. He didn’t specify what that material would be.

Mason noted that the so-called “digestion step” is used on debris-filled samples from the ocean or the seashore, and wasn’t needed for bottled water. “Certainly they are not suggesting that pure, filtered, pristine water is likely to have wood, algae, or chitin [prawn shells] in it?” she said.

To count the particles, we used an app that recorded the number of fluorescing objects in photographs of lab filters.

“This is pretty substantial,” Mayes said. “I've looked in some detail at the finer points of the way the work was done, and I'm satisfied that it has been applied carefully and appropriately, in a way that I would have done it in my lab.”

A recent paper in the journal Water Research reported finding micro-plastic in German mineral water. “I'm sure that this [plastic] is from the bottle itself,” lead author Darena Schymanski said.

Orb's studies of tap water and bottled water used different methods. But there is room to compare them.

For micro-plastic around 100 microns, about the width of a hair, bottled water samples had nearly twice the particles per liter (10.4) as tap water (4.45).

So what's best, bottled or tap?

“If your tap water is of high quality, that's always better,” said Scott Belcher, professor of toxicology at North Carolina State University. “If you have contaminated and unsafe drinking water, bottled water may be your only alternative.”

Echoing other consumers we interviewed, Apter said, “it's the government's responsibility to educate people to know what they're drinking and eating.”

(The full Orb Media report can be found on

PepsiCo clarifies that Epura is a proprietary brand of GEPP, which holds exclusive rights to PepsiCo products in Mexico.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 3:54:07 AM |

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