Microplastics discovered in our drinking water 'not a big surprise', expert says

Microplastics are in the snow, the air we breathe, and now, a new report by the World Health Organisation has found microplastics are also in our drinking water.

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Institute of Environmental Science and Research scientist Olga Pantos explained the new findings. Source: Breakfast

Senior scientist Olga Pantos, from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, says she's "not really" shocked by the report's findings.

She told TVNZ1's Breakfast: "We are seeing them everywhere, in all environments, so to hear that they're conclusively in our drinking water as well is not a big surprise.

"Everywhere we've looked, people have found plastics of varying shapes and sizes and types."

She said one of the most worrying places she has found microplastics is "right at the bottom of the food chain".

"We're seeing it being taken up by the phytoplankton in the oceans, and so as well as being at the base of the food chain, it's affecting their role in production of oxygen in our oceans, and that’s really quite worrying."

While the WHO report said the discovery of nanoplastics in our drinking water was of low concern, Ms Pantos noted that we are "still in the early days of the research".

"The information that's coming out at the moment is suggesting that it isn't a concern," she said. "But there’s still a lot of questions to be answered around this, especially around nanoplastics.

"The problem with them being really small – it's really hard to work on them, so our understanding of what nanoplastics are out there is non-existent at this stage because of the methodological problems we're having with looking at them.

"We know more about microplastics. We still know very little, relatively, about microplastics, but for the nanoplastics, that's a major challenge for us."

Nanoplastics are microplastics, defined as being 5mm or smaller, which have broken down over time to become smaller than 1 micron, she said.

Ms Pantos said despite New Zealand's isolation in relation to other countries, we cannot be protected from the harm of microplastics.

"We use plastics in our lives every single day in various forms, from the packaging in our food to building our houses, medicine – all sorts of things – so we're all exposed to the plastics."

She said while researchers are currently working on ways to mitigate the problem, one of the important things we can do is to stop big plastic from entering our environment – something Ms Pantos said is "really easy for us to do something about".

"It's about making those choices of 'do you really need to use something that comes in plastic that's going to be disposed of really quickly?' If we can stop that, it's going to be really easy. It's handling it once it’s broken down into the smaller bits that's going to be the really challenging part."

With the production of plastic set to double by 2025, Ms Pantos said the increase "does pose a lot of challenges for us". However, she added there is also "a lot of innovation going on, looking at alternatives to plastic - either complete alternatives or not using any plastic, or new plastics that have that potential to be compostable, so entering sort of a more green, circular economy so we don't have that waste in the end".

"There are huge amounts of research going on, looking at these alternatives, but there's a lot of work to be done."