WHO to Review Risk of Plastic in Drinking Water

The World Health Organisation is to launch a review into the potential health risks of plastic in drinking water. This follows the discovery by journalism organization, Orb Media, that many major brands of bottled water contain plastic particles[i].

The Orb Media study has been reported by a number of outlets, including the BBC[ii] and the Guardian[iii].  However, the study, published in 2017, does not appear to have been published in a peer-reviewed journal at this stage.

The researchers screened 259 bottles of water, from 11 different brands, purchased in 9 countries. A dye that attaches to plastic was used to locate larger plastic particles, and smaller particles were also found. These were assumed to be plastic (though they were not positively identified).

The main findings from the study were:

  • 93% of bottled water showed some sign of microplastic contamination.
  • There was an average of 10.4 microplastic particles bigger than 100 mm per litre of bottled water.
  • There was an average of 325 microplastic particles between 6.5 and 100 mm per litre of bottled water.
  • For particles bigger than 100 mm, polypropylene was the most common polymer found, which matches the material commonly used for bottle caps.
  • The data suggests that the contamination is, at least partially, originating from the packaging and/or the bottling process itself.

There were big differences within brands and even within the same pack of bottles. Some bottles contained no particles, while others contained hundreds or thousands.

According to BBC News, the WHO is to assess the latest research into the spread and impact of microplastics in bottled water[iv].  The key question is whether a lifetime of drinking particles of plastic could have an effect on human health? Bruce Gordon, co-ordinator of the WHO’s global work on water and sanitation, told BBC News: 

‘We normally have a ‘safe’ limit but to have a safe limit, to define that, we need to understand if these things are dangerous, and if they occur in water at concentrations that are dangerous.

Some of these particles are so incredibly small that they can actually make their way across the gastro-intestinal tract, across the lining and be carried throughout the body, and we don’t know the implications of what that means on our various organs and tissues’.

We will report on the findings of the WHO when they are made available.


[i] Synthetic polymer contamination in bottled water. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/14_03_13_finalbottled.pdf (Accessed 20 March 2018)

[ii] Plastic: WHO launches health review. BBC News. 15 March 2018 http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-43389031 (Accessed 20 March 2018)

[iii] Plastic fibres found in tap water around the world, study reveals. The Guardian. 6 September 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/06/plastic-fibres-found-tap-water-around-world-study-reveals (Accessed 20 March 2018)

[iv] Ibid BBC News