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Gauteng water contamination: Government considers banning microbeads

Plastic pollution is finding its way into the drinking water of Gauteng -The Department of Environmental Affairs considers waging war on microbeads.


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Following startling reports of widespread micro-plastic contamination of tap water in Gauteng, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has been forced to consider banning microbeads.

The tiny plastic beads, which are smaller than 5mm in size, are used in cosmetics, toothpaste and sandblasting, have found their way into the water system of Gauteng.

Microplastic pollution: The new danger facing drinking water

Studies done by the Water Research Commission (WRC) of South Africa found substantial traces of microplastic contamination polluting the tap water system of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

The results of the comprehensive study were released last month, and following a public outcry, the DEA has been forced to act on the contamination which is likely to have a negative effect on consumers of tap water.

According to News24, the DEA has now set up an investigative task team of officials from the departments of trade and industry, health and science and technology to examine the possibility of phasing in a microbead ban.

Albi Modise, spokesperson for the DEA, noted the negative effects of microplastic pollution, saying that the department had:

“moved quickly to engage extensively on the possibility of a complete ban of microbeads, particularly the petroleum-based microbeads”

The DEA spokesperson added that pressure was building on the Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association with regards to local manufacturing processes.

According to Modise, the association shares the same environmental concerns as the DEA. The spokesperson maintained that his organisation was actively engaging industry role-players, saying:

“The association has expressed the same concerns as those of DEA, and is working with the European Union and other local research institutes to look at alternatives into microbeads.”

Microplastics: The health risks

With regards to health risks associated with the consumption of microplastics, Professor Henk Bouwman, has said that further research is required.

As microplastic contamination is a relatively recent form of pollution, Bouwman says:

“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.”

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.”