COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Our months-long WIS investigation into plastic in drinking water concludes with trying to answer one question: how bad is it for our health?
It is a difficult question to answer because while studies have been done on how the chemicals in plastic could hurt humans, experts say there has not been enough research to determine what happens when microscopic pieces of plastic or microplastics enter our body.
Over the last few days, WIS has looked into a floating island of plastic waste, trash and debris sitting just outside of the Columbia canal. We also took samples of water from the Columbia Canal, Congaree River, and Lake Murray, as well as tap and bottled water.
As plastic sits on our water it breaks down becoming smaller and smaller, we wanted to see how much was in our natural bodies of water and in the filtered water.
WIS found that even in filtered water, we could be drinking microscopic pieces of plastic fragments, synthetic fibers, and tire particles.
Columbia is not alone in the plastic problem. One study found microscopic plastic fibers in more than 94 percent of United States Tap water. Bottled water in our study fared worse and also had its own problems in the U.S. and other countries according to this study.
It is a worldwide issue that stems from our heavy reliance and disposal of plastics that eventually make their way into oceans, rivers, and lakes when they escape landfills or are not properly thrown away.
Dana Nairn is a doctor at Providence Health in Columbia. She walked WIS through the scores of problems that chemicals in plastic could cause based on existing research.
“Most of the plastics will affect the endocrine system,” Nairn said. “It has been fairly clearly implicated with decreased fertility in both males and females.”
Part of Nairn’s work revolves around finding out why there has been an increase in chronic illnesses. She points to plastic as a possible reason.
“Some of them have been implicated already of the autism spectrum disorders,” Nairn said. “For women that become pregnant, it poses a problem for the fetus because pretty much all of those toxins across the placenta,” Nairn said.
“Known fact about plastics is that they release the chemicals especially with heat,” Nairn said, warning about drinking coffee through plastic lids which have been linked to the chemical BPA in the past. Also referring to the heating of Styrofoam cups containing drinks, or food.”
Some companies have taken steps to remove BPA from products, but Nairn says what has replaced them, isn’t necessarily a fix to the problem.
“Bisphenol S and Bisphenol F which the evidence shows most likely have same if not worse health effects,” Nairn said. “The scariest part is that plastics and other toxins as well accumulate throughout your lifespan.”
We circled back to the topic of ingesting microplastics. The focus of our WIS investigation and the pieces of plastic that we are likely drinking every time we turn on the tap or grab a bottle of water.
Dr. Nairn says there aren’t many studies on the effects of microplastics on humans, thus we cannot know how harmful it is. We replied, surely it cannot be healthy to drink plastic big, or small.
“Well, that’s what common sense would dictate,” Nairn said. “Presuming that we at least absorb at least some of the chemicals from the microplastics, which would make sense, then yes, it is very harmful.”
Stephanie Wright, an environmental health scientist at Kings College London, says “what may be of greater concern for these large microplastics is whether any associated chemical contaminants leach off during gut passage and accumulate in tissues.”
What we know now is that plastic is likely in our stomachs, one study found microplastics in human stool, but some say more research is needed on health effects before a sweeping change is enacted.
That is why our experts who helped us sample Midlands waterways like Charleston College Graduate student Sarah Kell and Citadel Biology Department Chairman John Weinstein are doing this research on microplastics.
"I like to work on issues that I think are solvable. Plastics are a huge concern globally, but I think it’s one that we as humans have the ability to fix and that really stops with stopping our consumption of plastics,” Kell said.
There are several efforts across the country to ban. In South Carolina, several coastal cities have taken action to ban single-use plastics, places like Charleston, in Beaufort County, and most recently the Richland County town of Arcadia Lakes, the first Midlands community to do so.
If passed, Richland County would be the first inland South Carolina county to enact a ban. Here is a list of the other coastal South Carolina cities that have taken action to ban single-use plastics:
Wednesday morning, however, public testimony was heard on South Carolina Senate Bill 394 that would ban any new plastic bans. It would also overturn the work municipalities in South Carolina have taken to pass restrictions on single-use plastics.
Right now, the bill introduced by Spartanburg Senator Scott Talley and York Senator Wes Climer has been Referred to the Committee on Labor, Commerce, and Industry. If it makes it out of the committee, the bill could find its way to the floor for a vote.
Proponents of the bill add that it would help the economy and businesses that depend on the plastic items.
Aside from bans on plastics, there can be steps taken to reduce our own plastic waste footprint through litter pickup, recycling and changing our plastic usage habits:
Lastly, we want to hear from you.
How do you feel about plastics? Do you use them? Why Is convenience more important for you than the possible health risks?
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