Like so many tea bags these days, it was made of a plastic mesh. And Tufenkji, a PhD-level researcher and professor of chemical engineering at McGill University in Canada, couldn’t help but wonder — what’s happening to that plastic mesh as it soaks in hot water?
“She was having a cup of tea in a coffee shop when she realized the tea bag seemed to be made of plastic,” explains PhD student Laura Hernandez, first author of the study. “Then, she asked me to look into the possibility of this tea bag breaking down.”
After careful study, Tufenkji and Hernandez are finally able to share the answer with the world. And it puts a damper on a classic drink that brings health benefits and comfort to so many people around the world.
The findings? Steeping plastic tea bags in hot water results in billions of tiny pieces of plastic breaking off into the water.
This isn’t McGill University’s first look at microplastics. “Our work with micro- and nanoplastics started when we looked into facial scrubs containing nanoplastics,” Hernandez explains. “In this work, we developed methods to find nanoplastics.”
Microbeads became popular as a cheaper replacement for exfoliators in facial scrubs and cleansers in the last decade. But with all of those tiny beads going down the drain, it spelled big trouble for our waterways, including the Great Lakes and beyond, where the plastics could build up in fish and damage ecosystems humans rely on.
Thankfully, microbeads in cosmetic products are now banned in the U.S., Canada and New Zealand.
But the tea bag study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, is just the latest example of how plastic tends to break off in tiny bits. And how does that affects our health? Well, that’s still not clear, although some early indications are cause for concern.
But for the study, McGill researchers looked at four types of commercial teas packaged in plastic tea bags. To avoid any interference with the readings, they removed the tea from the bags and steeped the plastic bags in 95 degree Celsius water, which translates to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
And now, the stunning part …
“We show that steeping a single plastic teabag at brewing temperature releases approximately 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics into a single cup of the beverage.” — McGill University researchers
When it comes to microplastics, we’re taking about the same thickness of a single piece of hair; for nanoplastics, it’s 1,000 times smaller.
So while the benefits of green tea and many other teas are solid, we simply don’t know how drinking this amount of tiny plastics will impact us. When it comes to human health, we’re in uncharted territory here.
And just one last part of the study … Researchers also dosed a common small aquatic organism — a water flea — with the plastic-tainted water. While it didn’t outright kill them, they did show behavioral and anatomical abnormalities, Hernandez says.
Although investigating microplastic pollution is still considered a newer emerging area of science, researchers recently released some other concerning findings like:
To be clear, the researchers want to stress the microplastic pollution detected in their study came from plastic tea bags, not the tea itself. “We would like the consumer to be conscious and evaluate the packaging that tea comes in. For instance, loose teas come without packaging, while other teas come in paper teabags. Single-use plastic packaging for teabags is not necessary.”
So thankfully, at least for this microplastic issue, there is an easy fix. If you drink a lot of tea, consider loose leaf tea and a food-grade stainless steel steeping ball. Or, just opt for tea in good old-fashioned paper bags. They’re great because you can remove the staple if there is one, along with the paper with that feel-good message at the end of the string and compost it.
Further, we just don’t know how ingesting microplastics fully effects humans in the long-term, but early research suggests one of our larger food exposures could be coming from shellfish.
But this study highlights the growing problem associated with single-use plastics — not just for the environment, but potentially human health, too.
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