The presence of nano and microplastics in water is posing a threat to the environment and harming the drinking water, a study found. The researchers said plastics in the waste streams break down into small particles, eventually causing a threat to the human health and aquatic systems.

The study, published in the Journal of Water Research last week, focused on the origin and impact of microplastics in water and wastewater treatment processes. The researchers from the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Surrey, England, also tried to find out potential solutions for the current problem.

The study, that was conducted in association with a group of researchers from the Deakin's Institute for Frontier Materials, Australia, stated the presence of tiny plastic particles in waste streams can cause catastrophic consequences for the aquatic systems and human health.

Though this was not the first time researchers were looking into the harmful effects of plastic, previous studies were not able to fully understand the impact of microplastics pollution and their interaction with waste water treatment process, the research team noted.

During the study, the team found that small pieces of plastics were breaking down into tiny particles during the treatment process. As a result, the treatment plants were not able to detect the presence of it in water, which is gradually affecting the water quality.

Every year, an estimate of 300 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide and nearly 13 million tons of that is released into oceans and rivers, the researchers stated. According to them, this process will eventually contribute to around 250 million tons of plastic by 2025.

It is worth noting that plastic materials do not get degraded through aging or weathering. So, the accumulation of plastic pollution is a major concern for the environment in general.

bottle Stacks of bottled water being stored in Flint, Michigan, Dec. 16, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Rebecca Cook

While highlighting the current problem in detecting the presence of micro and nano plastics in treatment systems, the researchers stressed on the need to ensure water quality. They suggested the need for new detection strategies to limit the presence of nano and microplastics in water and waste water treatment systems.

“The presence of nano and microplastics in water has become a major environmental challenge. Due to their small size, nano and microplastics can easily be ingested by living organisms and travel along water and wastewater treatment processes,” lead researcher Judy Lee said in a statement.

“In large quantities they impact the performance of water treatment processes by clogging up filtration units and increasing wear and tear on materials used in the design of water treatment units,” Lee, who is a senior lecturer at the University of Surrey, added.