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What's in your water? Plastic water bottles contain dangerous nanoplastics, U. researchers find

Rutgers and Columbia University researchers developed methods to quantify the number of nanoplastics in single-use water bottles and analyzed how nanoplastics travel in the human body.  – Photo by Jonathan Chng /

A recent study conducted by researchers from Rutgers and Columbia University indicates that there are high amounts of nanoplastic particles present in single-use plastic water bottles, according to a press release.

Phoebe Stapleton, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy and resident scientist in the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, worked with fellow researchers to specifically examine nanoplastics, particles that are smaller than one micron.

These differ from microplastics, which are plastic particles that are no greater than five millimeters, Stapleton said. The two different types of particles differ in regards to their size, so the immediate effects of micro and nanoparticles on the body differ as well, she said.

"Microparticles are generally too large to pass through biological barriers, meaning they will more likely pass through the GI system or be expelled from the respiratory system. Nanoplastics have been found to be able to breach biological barriers," Stapleton said.

She said that the research team used a tool to identify and record the number of nanoplastics in plastic water bottles.

"We were able to confirm the numbers of microplastics identified in previous studies and quantify the nanoplastics within the same water," Stapleton said. "As nanoplastics are approximately a thousand times smaller than the smallest microplastic, it is not surprising that we found hundreds of thousands of nanoplastics."

The study found that there were noticeable differences in the types of plastic particles across different brands of water bottles, Stapleton said. The distinction between the types of plastics demonstrated that the particles identified were not necessarily from the plastic of the bottle itself.

There are growing health concerns regarding nanoplastic particles due to their ability to travel and interact with different types of cells in the body. Stapleton and her team were able to record the interactions between nanoparticles and human cells by analyzing the movement of the plastic particles throughout the body.

Nanoparticles may especially affect pregnancy. She said in the lab models, nanoplastics are able to move to fetal tissue from the digestive system within a day, and the lab will focus on this topic in future studies.

Another part of the study found that plastic particles are created with chemicals such as endocrine disruptors, which include bisphenol A and phthalates. Both of these chemicals are dangerous if exposed to the human body, Stapleton said.

She also said chemicals from other compounds can attach to the plastic particles during processing, leading to nanoplastics carrying additional chemicals that are harmful to the body.

"The plastic may have come in contact with a metal ion or organic compound that attaches to the surface of the plastic particle or is 'adsorbed,'" Stapleton said. "These chemicals can travel with the plastic into the body, releasing the additives into the tissues."

Stapleton said these particles have been found everywhere in the environment and in consumable products. There is a direct link between the amount of processing a product goes through and the amount of plastic particles it will have, she said.

Stapleton said the study concluded that the presence of micro and nanoparticles in bottled water pointed to a bigger problem, which is that pollution in the environment that leads to unwanted human exposure.

"Plastic pollution is everywhere we look, even if it is invisible," she said.

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