Tap water and beer from the Great Lakes contains plastic, study finds

Plastic-particle [Photo by Mary Kosuth]

The Great Lakes are filled with plastic.

Microplastics—tiny pieces of plastic that are manufactured for use in personal care products, or that come from the breakdown of larger pieces—have long been clogging our lakes and oceans, becoming embedded in the internal organs of fish and other wildlife and disrupting ecosystems.

But a new study has now shown that microplastics have also made their way into waters that humans use, specifically our tap water and— worse?— our beer.

Minnesota public health researcher Mary Kosuth tested tap water samples that originated in the Great Lakes and found that 81% of them contained “anthropogenic particles” aka tiny pieces of plastic. She also tested 12 brands of Laurentian Great Lakes beer and found microsplastics in all of them.

Bottle of Great Lakes Brewing beer
According to the study results, beers brewed using Great Lakes water are likely to contain anthropogenic particles. [Photo by Chris Scott]
Strangely, she found that the beers with the most plastic in them did not necessarily come from the tap water sources with the most plastic. “I tested a couple of beer brands from Chicago—one of them had the highest number of plastic of all 12 beers tested and one had the lowest,” she told Inforum. “So maybe it’s not coming from the water source, or all of it isn’t from the water. Maybe it’s getting in during the brewing process. We don’t know.”

Regardless of where exactly the plastic originated, it points to a disturbing reality: we are drinking plastic.

“Our study basically confirmed that this stuff is everywhere,” Kosuth said.

Of course, it comes to no surprise to anyone living in the modern world that plastic has completely pervaded our planet. Most plastics virtually never break down, instead remaining in ecosystems and clogging bodies of water. And worse, many of our plastics are single-use, so we are essentially using an indestructible product one time and then throwing it away.

The health effects of humans’ excessive exposure to (and ingestion of) plastic remains unknown. However, Kosuth said that plastic can often “pick up” other substances, including toxic chemicals, bacteria, and heavy metals, which bind to plastic fibres. When we consume plastic, we may find ourselves consuming these other substances as well.

Small beads of microplastic
Microplastics are generally defined as plastic particles less than 5 mm in diameter. [Photo by Flickr/Oregon State University]
In Canada, the production and sale of products containing microbeads has been banned. However, there’s clearly much further to go, as much of the plastic ending up in the Great Lakes comes from other sources.

A study by the Rochester Institute of Technology estimated that nearly 22 million pounds of plastic makes its way into the Great Lakes each year. Kosuth said that there are many ways that plastics make their way into the water, but plastic products that are used once and thrown away are major offenders.

“We need to change behavior among people and industries and improve policies to reduce the amount of single-use plastic.”

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