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Interview with Molly Bingham – Orb Media: Microplastics in Water

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Molly Bingham is the President & CEO of Orb Media, a non-profit organization which reports on groundbreaking investigations on global development issues. In an interview with World Water-Tech, Molly gives her critical insight on microplastic contamination.

Invisibles: The Plastic Inside Us was the first ever global scientific study on the alarming prevalence of microplastics in tap water. Could you tell us a bit about Orb Media’s decision to undertake the study? What most surprised you about the findings?

In 2013, I read a story in the New York Times about research regarding the presence of microbeads in the Great Lakes. A few years later, still interested in the topic, Orb began pre-reporting on microplastics, learning that they are in many salt and fresh water systems. We wondered whether, if these tiny plastics are in water from which we draw our drinking water, whether they are in our tap water. We sought research that would answer it, but found there had never been a study focused on whether our global tap water contained microplastic.

We decided to work with the scientist mentioned in the New York Times story, asking her to design the protocols for and conduct a study to test global tap water samples that Orb would procure. The 2017 analysis of 159 tap water samples from 14 countries on five continents determined that 83% of the samples were contaminated with microscopic plastic fibers.

What surprised us about the findings was not the prevalence, but that no one had pursued this line of enquiry before. Our commons, that is, those elements that we all share: the air, water, soil are deeply connected and impact our food and health across nations, across regions, across the world. It’s important that, as a human society, we start seeing them that way.

The scale of global plastic contamination is only just starting to become clear. Which countries are most at risk? What are the sources of contamination and where does responsibility lie?

We do not know which countries are at most risk from plastic contamination; however, we know that this is an issue whose scope is global in scale and which demands further research to establish the prevalence and origin (or multiple origins) of the contamination. Only after that research is conducted will we know where the responsibility lies.

Typically, less than 5 mm in size, current standard water treatment systems do not filter out all of the microplastics. What does the water sector need to do to combat the problem before it culminates in crisis? Do technologies exist to effectively remove microplastics from wastewater?

Orb did not discover during our reporting any technologies proven to effectively remove microplastics from tap water. However, this isn’t an issue for the water sector to take on alone. As a society for whom water is life, we all need to acknowledge that microplastics may have a significant impact on human health and organize across sectors to explore the issue further.

What should we expect to see next from Orb Media regarding studies into microplastics? Can you give us a sneak peek of what the results may show? What will be the implications for the industry?

Orb reports on topics that affect billions of people. And we publish our work simultaneously with a group of agenda setting publishing partners around the world who have joined the Orb Media Network. By working and publishing in this way we can focus the attention of government, industry, civil society and the individual, to catalyze global dialogue on important issues. Individuals and communities around the world then have access to quality, fact-based information, and can learn, discuss and determine the appropriate actions for citizen-driven change.

We will be releasing our next study in mid-February on another aspect of microplastics contamination at www.orbmedia.org

If you had one message to send to the water sector, what would it be?

As a global community, we all need to work together: industry, local and national governments, the citizenry, academics, activists to call for and to conduct more research on the prevalence, sources and potential risks to human health of microplastics in our tap water.

Molly will be speaking about ‘Under the Microscope: The Plastic Problem in Need of a New Technological Solution’ at the World Water-Tech Innovation Summit on February 20-21, 2018. See full agenda at: worldwatertechinnovation.com/agenda

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