Micro-plastics research in progress

Water pollution and the breakdown of plastics into microplastics is a growing problem with microplastics being found in drinking water in Johannesburg and Tshwane.

Environmentalists have spoken out against the City of Cape Town’s attitude to microplastics research for local drinking water.

On the heels of reports that microplastics were found in the drinking supply in both Johannesburg and Tshwane, the False Bay Echo approached the City of Cape Town for insight into the situation locally.

Xanthea Limberg, mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water and waste services and energy, said the City had not started testing for microplastics in drinking water.

“We are aware that this is of emerging interest in the scientific community,” she said.

However, she said microplastics research was still in its infancy and there were no conclusive studies showing the effects on, or risks to, human health.

She said the World Health Organisation had only recently (March 2018) launched a health review into the potential risks of microplastic pollution.

This health review was launched after 90% of bottled water was found to contain microplastics.

“This being said, most of our drinking water comes from water sources in the mountainous areas around Cape Town, with limited exposure to pollutants,” Ms Limberg said.

She said all water supplied by the City complied with the current National Drinking Water Quality standards, and the City would be ready to align testing procedures – if those become more rigorous in future.

But Dr Tony Butt, oceanographer and part-time resident of Kommetjie, labelled Ms Limberg’s response “reductionist thinking” and said it was precisely because the effect of microplastics was unknown that more precautions should be taken and more intensive research done.

“People tell me that there are many social ills and situations which take precedence over this – but this has to be said. If the environmental and natural resources, which we all depend on are depleted or irreversibly polluted, then we have no sustainable life and the social and other issues will be null and void,” he said.

Dr Butt said the poor were most at risk to the effects of pollutants. “Where poverty is rife, so is pollution. We need to reach those people at the front line of risk to help change mindsets of the policy makers,” he said.

Environment activist Kevin Rack, of Muizenberg, said the City had shown poor leadership over the drought, “so it is no surprise that once again they will fail to rise to the greatest threat to humanity”.

He added: “Like the drought or the land crisis, it is far easier to bury one’s head in the sand. The thought that there was no drought until it was proven, forces a reactionary ‘too late’ response; and not a proactive approach.”

He said the City had shown over and over it could not take decisive, proactive decisions, and simply blamed central government for failures.

The water from the mountain sources referred to by Ms Limberg ended up in rivers that ran through agricultural and urban areas where they picked up pollutants, he said.

“It is known that ocean pollution comes mainly from rivers. The City maintains the in-line river traps and canals (poorly) and should know the truth of the amount of litter
City contractors remove from our rivers.”

The study upcountry, commissioned by the Water Research Commission and carried out by researchers at North-West University, found substantial amounts of microplastics – bits of plastics less than 5mm in size – in tap water in both cities, as well as in rivers in Gauteng and in bore-
hole water in the North West province.

In addition to calling for more studies to be done, it recommended that South Africa ban the manufacture and use of microbeads.

River water from 43 sites in the Vaal, Mooi and Wasgoedspruit rivers in Gauteng and North West was tested and contained microplastics.

Professor Henk Bouwman, one of the researchers in this study, said the science to determine the effect of microplastics on humans was still in its infancy.

He said while humans and animals had evolved to deal with particle pollution entering our bodies over millions of years, plastic particles were new.

The study also said that it could safely be assumed that microplastics would be present elsewhere in freshwaters in South Africa and suggested that surveys be undertaken countrywide to obtain a picture of pollution, and to establish a baseline against which to measure concentration trends.

An international study by Orb Media, found that 94% of tap water in America and 72% in Europe contained microplastics, and researchers in the Department of Geology and Environmental Sciences of Fredonia University in New York tested 27 different lots of bottled water from 11 different brands purchased in 19 locations across nine different countries for microplastic contamination: 93% tested positive.

In 1969 John Hopkins University toxicologists Robert Rubin and Rudolph Jaeger found that DEHP was leaching from plastic and into human tissue.

DEHP is a phthalate ester: phthalate esters, are esters of phthalic acid. They are mainly used as plasticizers, in other words they are substances added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity. They are used primarily to soften polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

In 1972 there was an article in the Washington Post which reported that phthalates like DEHP had been found in blood samples from people who had been exposed only through everyday contact with plastic.

The article said that “humans are just a little plastic now.”

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