Microplastics in drinking water effectively removed by UK treatment

microplastics in drinking water
© iStock/chapin31

Water treatment processes in the UK remove up to 99.9% of the microplastics in drinking water, new research has found.

The research, conducted by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology on behalf of UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR), follows a report from the World Health Organization which said, while no evidence currently exists to suggest microplastics in drinking water pose a particular threat to human health, further investigation should be conducted to determine the potential long and short term impacts.

UKWIR Chief Executive Steve Kaye said: “We’re pleased to publish this important piece of UKWIR research and share the findings with everyone who, like ourselves, is seeking to further the science around the source, fate and impact of microplastics. As our study shows, one of our key objectives was to ensure the sampling and analytical techniques used were robust enough to produce credible results. We’re confident the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, who carried out the research, have achieved this. It’s good news that the research demonstrates the water industry’s treatment processes are performing well in removing microplastics, something they were not designed to do but are achieving with significant success. As ever, with important pieces of research, it has raised further questions which require more study by ourselves and others. We’ll now work with the water industry’s regulators and partners to prioritise the next steps.”

While the research showed the success of UK water treatment processes of removing microplastics from both drinking water and treated wastewater released into the environment, representatives of the water industry have called on the government to do more to prevent the entry of plastics into the water system in the first place. Microplastics derive from the breakdown of plastic materials ranging from tyres and clothes to packaging and sanitary products; and enter the environment through direct – as litter, for example – and indirect sources, such as microfibres released from clothing as it is washed. The report noted that while government measures are due to be implemented restricting the use of disposable plastic packaging, the material makeup of items which can shed microplastics – such as clothes and tyres – remains insufficiently regulated.

Michael Roberts, Chief Executive of Water UK, said: “This important research underlines the effectiveness of water treatment in the UK in removing microplastics and other pollutants from our water supply. It’s thanks to these robust processes that the we all enjoy world class water whenever we turn on our taps. However, while the vast majority of microplastics are removed in the treatment process, we aren’t complacent and therefore will support UKWIR in undertaking further research to understand the true nature and impact of this hidden problem. Action from government, industry and the public remain critical to prevent these microplastics entering our water system and wider environment in the first place. Tackling our over reliance on plastics and improving end of life collection will be the only way to effectively address any risks from such pollutants.”


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