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How Much Plastic Are You Consuming with Each Bottle of Water?

A close-up image of a transparent plastic water bottle, possibly containing microplastics invisible to the human eye,

Our lives are practically entwined with plastic, from the moment we grab our toothbrush in the morning to the water bottle we sip through the day. Yet, as we go along, these very items are silently breaking apiece. Tiny plastic fragments, known as microplastics and barely the size of a sesame dot, are forming right under our noses. But it doesn’t stop there—these fragments shrink even further into what’s called nanoplastics, which are tinier than the smallest speck you can spot. 

Advanced Imaging Sheds Light on Nanoplastics

Previous studies have uncovered surprising findings—tiny particles of plastic are not just in the world around us, but inside us as well, mixed into our blood, nested within our lungs, tucked into our gut, and even embedded in critical reproductive organs like the placenta and testes. The true impact that these minuscule plastic bits might have on our health remains a mystery that scientists are still striving to unveil. Due to their incredibly small size, these nanoplastics are notoriously difficult to spot and analyze.

Delving deeper into this microscopic world, Drs. Wei Min and Beizhan Yan from Columbia University are pioneering the way forward. They’ve adapted a groundbreaking imaging technology co-developed by Dr. Min 15 years ago—which was initially supported by the NIH—called stimulated Raman scattering (SRS) microscopy. This advanced technique, now a common tool for peering at tiny molecules within live cells, operates by directing twin laser beams at a specimen. This interaction encourages specific molecules to release a unique light signature that can be precisely detected. What sets SRS microscopy apart is its ability to observe these molecules directly and in real-time, without the need for any special markers, offering a clearer view into the cellular microcosms of our bodies.

Nanoplastics in Bottled Water

In a study backed by the NIH, researchers have advanced the techniques used to detect plastic contamination by developing a new method of stimulated Raman scattering (SRS) microscopy capable of identifying micro- and nanoplastics at the individual particle level. After proving that this innovative method could quickly identify plastics tinier than 1 μm, the team crafted a machine-learning algorithm purpose-built to recognize seven widespread types of plastics.

Putting their novel, high-throughput imaging platform to the test, the researchers examined the presence of micro- and nanoplastics in three widely consumed brands of bottled water, with their findings published on January 8, 2024, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Their analysis revealed astonishing figures: on average, each liter of bottled water contains approximately 240,000 minuscule plastic fragments. Alarmingly, about 90% of these were nanoplastics, far exceeding the number of plastic particles reported in previous research, which only addressed larger microplastics and suggested figures 10 to 100 times smaller.

What Lies Beneath

A study examining bottled water has discovered the presence of seven key types of plastics, with significant amounts of polyamide—used in water filtration—and PET, common in beverage containers. Other identified plastics include polyvinyl chloride and polystyrene, used in water purification. 

This novel method also found millions of other unclassified particles, suggesting a complex mix of nanoplastics or unknown substances. Researcher Yan highlighted this as a groundbreaking stride towards understanding nanoplastic interactions. The team plans to apply this detection technique to analyze tap water, air, and biological tissues, and is developing filters to reduce plastic pollution from sources like laundry wastewater, reflecting on the widespread use of plastics like nylon and PET in textiles.

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