The researchers found harmful germs can remain infected for up to three days in clean water by riding on plastic.
Enteric viruses that cause diarrhea and gastrointestinal disorders, such as rotavirus, are found alive in water by adhering to microplastics, tiny particles less than 5mm long. They are constantly infected, researchers at Stirling University have found, putting health risks at risk.
Professor Richard Quilliam, a leading researcher at Stirling University, stated: “We have found that germs can attach to microplastic cells and allow them to survive in water for three days, perhaps longer.”
Although previous research has been conducted in empty areas, this is the first study of how bacteria behave in an environment, Quilliam said. However, he used standard laboratory methods to determine if germs found in microplastics were contagious.
“We were not sure how the germs could survive by ‘riding’ on plastic in the area, but they survived and remained infected,” he said.
The findings, which are part of a £ 1.85m project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council looking at how plastics transport germs and viruses, concluded that microplastics allow the transmission of the pathogen into the environment. This paper is published in the journal Environmental Pollution.
“Since you are infected with the environment for three days, long enough you can move from a wastewater treatment plant to a public beach,” Quilliam said.
Wastewater treatment plants could not capture microplastics, he said. “Even if the wastewater treatment plant does its best to clean up the sewage, the water produced has microplastics in it, which is then transported to the river, which enters the harbor and ends up on the shore.”
These plastic particles are so small that swimmers can swallow them. “Sometimes, they bathe on the beach like brightly colored pellets called nurdles that children can pick up and put in their mouths. It doesn’t take a lot of viruses to make you sick,” said Quilliam.
Although the impact of microplastics on human health remains uncertain, “if those pieces of microplastics were exposed to human pathogens, that could be a major health risk,” Quilliam said.