The next time you are craving tea, choose the paper teabag or loose-leaf tea in a reusable infuser — just steer clear of the plastic teabag. Why? A recent McGill University study found that just one plastic teabag can leach billions of microplastic particles into your beverage.
Professor Nathalie Tufenkji, of the McGill University Chemical Engineering Department, was surprised to find that premium teabags, made of plastic, were offered at her local Canadian coffee shop. For research purposes, she then asked graduate student Laura Hernandez to purchase several plastic teabags from a number of different brands. Next, the research duo collaboratively ran tests and analyses in the laboratory to discover the amount of microplastics being released after steeping the teabag.
Results alarmingly showed that as many as 11.6 billion microplastic particles and 3.1 billion nano-sized particles were contaminating the tea. Nano-sized particles are small enough to enter the human bloodstream and human cells. These numbers were considerably above-average — in fact, thousands of times higher — relative to other food products and beverages. Tufenkji said, “you’re literally adding plastic” into your cup each time you steep a plastic teabag.
Microplastics are everywhere, contaminating the oceans and the marine organisms that live there, and often making their way into our food chain. A joint study — published earlier this year by the University of Newcastle in Australia and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and available for viewing here — announced that humans are ingesting about 5 grams of plastic per week, which is about the size of a credit card. Consuming tea brewed from plastic teabags could very well increase that collective annual amount.
Currently, the two types of plastics linked to adverse effects on the human body are Bisphenol A (BPA) and Phthalates. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have issued warnings on BPA exposure creating negative effects like metabolic disease, birth complications and other health problems. Phthalates, meanwhile, are known to disrupt the body’s natural endocrine functions.
Even more worrisome, regarding ingestion of microplastics, is that microplastics act as “toxic rafts” that pick up other environmental pollutants around them. In other words, microplastics attract environmental pollutants, concentrate them and carry them. Ingesting these microplastic “toxic rafts” rife with concentrated pollutants therefore increases the risks to your health.
Unfortunately, there is no study yet that examines the actual danger that the plastic teabags, made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and nylon, pose to humans. Instead, more research is required to understand the long-term impact that various microplastics can have on human health.
“There’s really no research,” Tufenkji said. “But this really points to the need to do those studies. Think of people who drink one or two or three cups of tea a day, every day.”
Tufenkji moreover emphasized that these plastic teabags are just another example of single-use plastics that are fomenting more environmentally destructive trouble than they are worth. It is up to consumers to fight for alternative packaging and to urge government policymakers to regulate plastic production and plastic use. Decreasing plastic packaging will not only improve the environment, but it could also safeguard one’s health as well.
Image via Conger Design