California Brings Microplastic Testing to the Forefront

Jan. 9, 2023
Approving microplastics testing in drinking water will make California a frontrunner in numerous environmental conversations — starting with human health.

Global conversations have instigated more profound interest in microplastics as environmental preservation escalates as a collective priority. Explanations typically revolve around aquatic life and how many microplastics they ingest, harming ecosystems potentially beyond repair. However, California is the first to address microplastics in drinking water exclusively.  

New research can be the foundation for safe drinking water regulations and promote technological advancements for purification. Analyzing drinking water this way can trickle into positive environmental progression in countless industries and personal changes, from single-use plastic consumption to material usage in factories.  

Approving microplastic testing in drinking water will make California a frontrunner in numerous environmental conversations — starting with human health. 

Bridging Gaps in Testing Protocol 

Humans know little about how much microplastics affect long-term health, much less specific body systems like digestion or immunity. Microplastic testing in drinking water is a young field of study. No state has sufficient data or testing infrastructure to know how to perform it for accuracy or what standard people should follow.  

For example, do microplastics in drinking water harm people if the naked eye can’t see them — or is it only larger pieces potentially laced with dye? Testing now provides solutions down the line, acting as a form of preventive health care.  

California passed a law in 2018 requiring a four-year water-testing project, prompting a mission to deliver Water Resources Control Board data to affirm why providers must test the water for microplastics. 

A lack of precedents, expedited research deadlines and funding had to be resolved for adequate execution. Championing these hurdles resulted in creating the first guidelines for drinking water testing in August 2022 — a guidebook water providers in California must follow in 2023.  

The range of water providers includes small facilities that serve less than 3,300 people and large operations serving over 100,000. A wide range like this can muddy more specific conclusions from data in the immediate future. Still, they will provide immense insight into facility capability for testing and purification based on service area. 

Every facility in the testing group has a listed rationale for inclusion to ensure the sample size covers a broad scope. Some are included because they are among the largest providers. Others are taking part for other reasons: 

  • They have groundwater with low filtration; 
  • They have surface water with low filtration; 
  • They have geographically diverse systems and;  
  • They have groundwater under direct infiltration with low filtration 

An initiative of this scale will provide the United States with the data to catapult national change, revealing more specifics in the short- and long-term ramifications of consuming microplastics. 

Advancement will continue to shape how the world thinks about water, its purification and its scarcity. Better filtration of drinking water can help do more than keep humans hydrated. Once this technology develops, its applications can be used in other water-related sectors, improving accessibility and quality worldwide. 

Current Methods & Options for Maintenance 

Testing must first extract microplastics from water for analysis. At this point, scientists count the particles and determine the material composition, product type and perhaps origin. Laser technology increased the efficiency of this process because some translucent microplastics are nearly impossible to see — light can reveal their location.  

The handbook dictates that testing facilities can receive accreditation for this testing stage from the Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (ELAP). When applying, companies must include the method they will use for their testing, such as infrared spectroscopy. Creating distinctions between different testing areas is vital for analyzing disparities just as much as commonalities between data. 

Each testing phase searches for different sizes in microplastics. Any microplastic 50 micrometers or longer must be reported for Phase I — some laboratories may choose to have a smaller size as their requirement. It is five micrometers for Phase II. Water providers can only analyze it from drinking water sources, regardless of whether it is surface or groundwater. 

Scientists are required to analyze some metrics, while others are optional. Plants must discover how many microplastics are entering their facilities and see what remains suspended and what dissolves.  

It is impossible to know yet what is safe for human consumption based on these numbers. Once scientists form more concrete determinations based on data, another testing method will likely need to be formulated to assess health. Bottled water will also require testing, especially because some claims state people consume 100,000 microplastics yearly in the world’s top brands like Nestle and Aquafina. 

After scientists peel away the plastic, the operations become more widespread. How will the water treatment industry adapt? Will it require new technology to comb water more precisely? Will individual consumers be held accountable alongside larger entities to reduce plastic pollutants in waterways? 

A natural move is to implement Internet of Things (IoT) technology. After testing becomes routine, water quality sensors can advance and adapt to detect particles analyzed in testing data. IoT tech can then feed machine learning databases, constantly adding to an infinitely growing data set to improve the industry. 

Benefits of Testing Microplastics in Drinking Water 

At this stage, creating federal regulations for microplastics in drinking water is a long-term goal — but this shouldn’t demotivate scientists or halt testing. Consumer-focused organizations and nonprofits can adapt the research-based standards before federal recognition, implementing procedures long before the lawmaking process.  

Even if laws don’t pass soon, businesses and households can benefit countrywide from this localized research. 

Research also debunks arguments that claim microplastics in drinking water pose no risk. Humans currently reside at a tense juncture in environmental discourse where progress relies on certainty. Entities cannot assume no-risk mentalities because there isn’t sufficient evidence anymore. The issue’s severity is yet to be determined. Still, it’s a matter of proving what amount of microplastics causes what side effects — whether its low-grade toxicity or lifelong reproductive concerns. 

More testing adds to an ever-growing pool of data and highlights the most prominent sources of microplastics and how geographic regions are affected by different influences. One area of the nation sees more synthetic clothing fibers in its drinking water, while another finds more originating from fishing nets. 

Required testing also provides the benefit of forcing state governments to work with water providers. The testing burden will be expensive, so the California state government is stepping up. Microplastics in drinking water are an issue directly affecting state citizens. Therefore funding assistance can originate in government support, even for budding projects like additional water quality testing.  

A collaborative effort like this cannot be understated, as it minimizes resistance from companies to test and accentuates prioritization of citizen health. 

Assembling Standards for Microplastics in Drinking Water 

Testing like this is new territory. However, the more locations tested, the more holistic the picture will be worldwide. How many microplastics do humans consume, and is it safe and possible to regulate?  

Initiatives like this impact the planet’s developmental goals, addressing access to clean water and asserting environmental sanctity. The process may take years, but the catalyst is all the world needs to heal. 

About the Author

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is the editor in chief of Revolutionized, a popular science publication that dives into the latest innovations in science, technology and industry. 

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