Giyani Bulk Water supply project

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Gauteng drinking water contaminated by microplastic pollution

Plastic pollution finding its way into our drinking water.

Giyani Bulk Water supply project

Stock photo

A recent study by the Water Research Commission (WRC) has revealed the contamination of drinking water in Johannesburg and Tshwane. Microplastic water pollution has also been found in the North West province.

By definition, microplastics are plastic particles smaller than 5mm in size. Substantial amounts of the contaminate were discovered by researchers at North-West University, who were responsible for carrying out the investigations on behalf of the WRC.

Microplastics come from a variety of sources, including cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes.

While the presence of microplastics in the water system is a worrying result of pollution affecting the environment negatively, the health risks associated with consuming microplastics have yet to be determined.

Speaking to News24, Professor Henk Bouwman, said that due to the recent surge of microplastic pollution, and its subsequent human intake, it’s still too soon to verify the contaminants direct influence on the human body.

While studies on regular plastics have confirmed chemical toxicity within humans, Bouwman is unable to comment on the effect of microplastics, saying:

“There is no consensus yet on any health impacts as the science is still in its infancy. It might be benign, and it might not be. There are a whole lot of things we don’t understand at this stage.”

Tested water sites

In addition to local tap water testing, river water tests conducted in Gauteng and the North West province focused on 40 main sites in the Vaal, Mooi and Wasgoedspruit Rivers – all were found to contain microplastics.

Groundwater tested in Potchefstroom was also found to contain the tiny contaminants.

Possible health concerns

Toxicity concerns over general plastics are well researched. Bouwman admits this, and goes further to explain why plastics trap pollutants, saying:

“Pollutants stick on the outside of the plastic and are absorbed by plastic, especially the hydrophobic chemicals – those that don’t like water – like DDT. What we don’t know yet is whether these chemicals move from the plastic into the body of the organism that swallowed it.”

Plastic itself is considered toxic to humans due to the chemical compounds found within the substance. Exposure to these chemicals in large quantities has been linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments.

Where do microplastics come from?

According to some studies, microplastics could contribute up to 30% of the “plastic soup” polluting the world’s oceans.

The cosmetic industry is blamed for producing most of the world’s microplastics, through the creation and sale of exfoliators containing micro-beads or micro-exfoliates.

Clothing, specifically made from polyester, nylon and acrylics, shed their contents in the wash, and in that way contribute to microplastic pollution.

Packaging materials are also blamed for the large-scale microplastic pollution, especially in the ocean. Granules or resin pellets are often used to protect goods during transport. Often, these contaminants find their way out of parcels and into water sources.