Irish scientists discover that tap water protects against microplastics

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Dr John Boland, who co-directed the AMBER study, said the dark brown color in kettles is “a good thing.”

Irish scientists have found that tap water can form a coating on plastics over time that prevents the spread of harmful microplastics in the foods we consume.

The study was led by scientists from Science Foundation Ireland’s (SFI) Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research Center, or AMBER and published in Journal of Chemical Engineering.

Professor John Boland of AMBER and Trinity College Dublin’s School of Chemistry (TCD), who co-directed the study that led to the discovery, said his team found that objects such as plastic kettles develop a protective skin after being in regular contact with tap water, preventing it from releasing microplastics.

Unlike distilled water used in laboratories for previous similar experiments, tap water is not pure H2O because it contains trace elements and minerals, making it a more natural type of water to work with in research, Boland explained.

“Rather than the plastic flaking off, the minerals coat the plastic and prevent any kind of degradation and thus the product becomes microplastic-free,” said Boland. “For example, that dark brown color in your kettle is a good thing.”

“Nature leads the way”

The “dark brown color” often seen in kitchen items such as kettles is the copper oxide that forms from the high copper content in tap water. This cooper occurs naturally in tap water and comes from the copper pipes of the houses and forms a protective layer against microplastics.

Boland co-directed the research with Dr. Jing Jing Wang, who is also a researcher at AMBER and a professor at the TCD School of Chemistry. Both academics are involved in TCD’s Center for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices, of which Boland is the principal investigator.

“This discovery is important because we have learned that these types of protective skins can be fabricated in the laboratory and applied directly to plastic without having to wait for it to build up naturally,” said Boland.

“This discovery also shows that nature is leading the way, pointing to solutions to what is a very significant problem facing our modern high-tech society.”

The research team was supported by Enterprise Ireland, SFI, the School of Engineering Scholarship of Trinity College Dublin, the China Scholarship Council and the Irish Research Council.

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