ST. LOUIS — After radioactive waste concerns at an elementary school in north St. Louis County due to nearby Coldwater Creek, the 5 On Your Side I-Team wanted to delve more into the safety of our drinking water.
We drink it every day, often without a second thought. But should we think more about what’s in it? In a months-long investigation, we worked with a team of researchers and scientists. We analyzed drinking water from 31 locations around St. Louis, mainly north St. Louis County. We tested for microplastics.
"Have you ever heard of microplastics?” asked the I-Team's Paula Vasan to visitors in Forest Park.
“No, I don't think so," said Claire, who was visiting Forest Park as a traveling nurse.
“Absolutely not," said Cherry Hale.
“Oh, yeah, kind of," said Brooke Brawley, a Brentwood resident.
Not everyone’s so sure.
Microplastics are extremely small pieces of plastic found in our water supply. They’re less than five millimeters in length. They're about the size of a sesame seed or smaller. They're the result of consumer products and industrial waste.
Water study results
The Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper, a nonprofit advocating for clean water, tested a total of 31 samples of water, mainly from north St. Louis County and north St. Louis. Researchers did the majority of testing between September and November 2022. They worked with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Funding for the project came from the Missouri Foundation for Health.
So what did the study show? Of the 31 drinking-water samples collected, 87% had so-called normal levels of microplastics. That means the levels were within the range of what you’d find in most of the country.
One location in north St. Louis had a level three times higher. Researchers said it could be due to a number of things, most likely the pipes within the home. They’ll be doing more testing to find out.
Less than 10% had no detectable levels of microplastics.
The overall findings line up with national trends: About 90% of our drinking water has microplastics, according to the Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper.
“This is truly a ubiquitous problem across the United States and across the world," said Charles Miller, a policy manager at the Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper. “It’s something we need to get a handle on, in terms of, you know, how we produce, dispose of and control plastic waste."
In response to the study, Miller said: "Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper is pleased to see that based on our preliminary sampling results, St. Louisans do not appear to be exposed to a significantly higher level of microplastics in their drinking water than other Americans. Nevertheless, even these ‘normal’ levels of microplastics demonstrate that plastic pollution is a serious problem in the United States, Missouri, and St. Louis. Lastly, we want to underscore that drinking tap water is almost always safer than purchasing bottled water. More often than not, bottled water is simply tap water from somewhere else. Studies have also shown that microplastic concentrations actually tend to be higher in bottled water, rather than tap water. Finally, tap water quality is mandated by the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act and Missouri state law. Similar health protections do not exist for bottled water. In general, if you want to avoid contaminants in the water you drink, tap water is your best bet."
Jason Knouft, a scientist with St. Louis University and the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center, said: “While microplastics are commonly found in tap water across the sampled homes, there’s no reason to think that the levels found pose health risks for those living in the area or in each home. However, if residents are interested in filtering microplastics from your tap water, reverse osmosis filtration systems installed at home will do the job while also removing other contaminants from your water."
Knouft studies the impact of microplastics and solutions. In November, he published research looking at how concentrations of microplastics are highest in urban areas with more dense populations.
He found there are higher concentrations of microplastics where more people live.
“And so it's disproportionately affecting urban systems. And, you know, that's a concern," Knouft said.
The World Health Organization said there's no known risk of microplastics. But there's also not a lot of data. Scientists have urged more research.
“And that's I think the thing that is most worrisome is that we're not certain what's happening with these microplastics," Knouft said.
For now, Knouft said the No. 1 thing each of us can do is to limit how much plastic we use. His suggestions: using stainless steel, reusable water bottles; reusable grocery bags; and replacing plastic with glass or aluminum when possible.
Efforts to limit plastic consumption
Many people say it’s going to take government action to limit plastics in a big way. We interviewed Ingrid Burnett, a Democratic Missouri lawmaker who’s been trying to curb the sale of plastic bags here in Missouri. She’s tried and failed for seven years.
At least 12 states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington—and five U.S. territories—American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands—have enacted legislation to ban single-use plastic bags, according to Jennifer Schultz, program principal at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories.
We reached out to the Missouri Grocers Association for their reaction. “The Missouri Grocers Association supports the practice of Reducing, Reusing and Recycling. The right to choose paper, plastic, or reusable bags at point of sale should reside with the consumer and retailer and not be mandated by any government,” said Missouri Grocers Association spokesperson Dan Shaul.
Missouri law currently protects the unrestricted use of plastic bags and other single-use plastic products. House Bill 772 would allow municipalities to limit their use at the local level. Missouri State Representative Ingrid Burnett, a Democrat from Kansas City, has been advocating for limiting single-use plastic bags in the state. Her proposed legislation — House Bill 772 — would allow municipalities to place limits on the sale of single-use plastic bags in places like grocery stores. She first proposed and filed the bill in 2017. But each year, it failed to get a hearing. She said there’s a stronger lobbying push from grocers than there is from environmental groups, which blocks her legislation from moving forward. We reached out to the Missouri Grocers Association for their reaction.
“Ultimately, plastic bags are just one of countless single-use plastic items that pollute the Earth, and shed chemical-laced plastic particles that enter our bodies,” said Erica Cirino, a spokesperson with the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a nonprofit. “While bag bans may make a local impact and help change consumer habits by encouraging use of reusable bags, what is most needed is enforceable legislation that significantly curbs production of plastic items, especially those that are single-use, and establishes effective systems of reuse, refill, repair, and share to seriously address humanity's out-of-control wastefulness.”
“We need to, you know, sort of encourage our system, encourage our lawmakers… to think about ways that we can reduce the amount of plastic that we're using," Knouft said.
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