University of Newcastle to test for plastic pollution in the Hunter's drinking water and environment

A University of Newcastle team will examine whether the Hunter’s drinking water has been contaminated with plastic.

This type of pollution is “an emerging global threat to human health”, Dr Thava Palanisami says.

“It’s an environmental catastrophe that’s under-recognised.”

Dr Palanisami, a senior research fellow at the university, is researching microplastic and microfibre pollution in the Hunter Region.

Asked if he thought this pollution would be found in the Hunter’s drinking water, he said it had been detected in areas including the US and Europe.

“Based on these reports, yes we will find it. But it’s a case-by-case scenario,” he said.

Dr Palanisami said plastic contamination of drinking water was “a very serious issue”.

“Plastic itself is a contaminant and has the potential to attract other contaminants,” Dr Palanisami said.

“About 78 per cent of chemicals associated with microplastics are priority toxic chemicals – some of them are carcinogenic.”

These microplastics and microfibres [tiny threads shed from fabric] can attract other contaminants like PFOS and PFOA [of the Williamtown scandal], pesticides, flame retardants, bacteria and heavy metals.

This, he said, would amount to “a cocktail of contaminants”.

The tiny plastic particles could, if ingested, “act like a poison pill”.

“You take this into your stomach and it may dissolve and leach out. That’s the hypothesis,” he said.

“Are these plastics and chemicals getting into people’s bloodstream? That’s what we don’t know.”

Hunter Water executive manager for strategy and planning, Darren Cleary, said the state-owned utility would stay at “the forefront of research” on the matter.

“While Hunter Water’s catchments have less of a likelihood of microplastics in raw [natural] water than other global cities due to less upstream wastewater discharge, the ubiquitous nature of these plastics would suggest they may be present in untreated water, and possibly in treated water,” Mr Cleary said.

Hunter Water sought to learn more about “microplastics and microfibres in the environment, potential human health impacts and management strategies”.

Mr Cleary said the Hunter’s water-quality testing regime was “based on the Australian drinking water guidelines”.

“We have no current plans to test for microplastics [in drinking water], but are instead focused on learning more about how they behave in the environment and any potential human health impacts,” he said.

Dr Palanisami said more research was needed to gauge the risks to human health.

Research on wild animals has shown that toxic chemicals from plastic pollution are released into the body.

Dr Palanisami said microplastics and microfibres had also been found in overseas studies in cooking salt, honey, beer, bottled water and people’s homes.

“Because it’s lightweight, it can travel anywhere.”

He said lots of microfibres had been detected “floating in the atmosphere”.

These particles have been shown to end up in water used for drinking purposes. They can end up being swallowed because this type of pollution is not properly filtered or treated.

Some of this plastic pollution consists of nanosize particles, which cannot be detected.

Microfibres can enter the atmosphere when synthetic fabrics like polyester break down as they age.

“In the ‘50s, people were wearing cotton clothing,” Dr Palanisami said.

Microplastic pollution also comes from deteriorated products that are not properly disposed of.

This ends up in wastewater systems, the ocean and waterways – contaminating marine life.

Microfibre pollution can also enter the water from clothes in washing machine wastewater.

“If plastic is transferred from the food chain to fish, we need to know what will happen if we eat that fish,” Dr Palanisami said. 

About 8 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, according to a University of California study released in July.

The little green dots are pieces of plastic coloured with fluorescent dye, which plankton has ingested.

The little green dots are pieces of plastic coloured with fluorescent dye, which plankton has ingested.

“We are increasingly smothering ecosystems in plastic and I am very worried that there may be all kinds of unintended, adverse consequences,” Professor Roland Geyer told The Guardian.

As well as drinking water, Dr Palanisami and his team are researching plastic pollution of the marine food chain, wastewater, how plastic interacts with other contaminants and its implications for human health in the Hunter.

“This research has been chronically underfunded,” he said. 

There’s no funding from the federal government so far on this and plastic pollution is only going to increase.

“Now it’s been found in drinking water overseas, we don’t know where we’ll find it next. Maybe breast milk.”

The team is seeking funding from government and philanthropic sources.

“Once we understand what is happening, we’ll be able to give recommendations on possible remediation technologies,” Dr Palanisami said.

The aim is to “understand the problem and educate the community”.

“I’m not just interested in illustrating the risk, I should be able to find a solution.”

Dr Palanisami can be contacted by email at thava.palanisami@newcastle.edu.au or phone on (02) 40339411.