Bottled water is often preferred over tap water in Bhutan due to concerns about the latter’s safety. However, recent research shows that the safety of bottled water is also questionable. A study conducted by the State University of New York 2018 tested 250 bottled water samples from 11 different brands across 9 countries and found that 93% of the samples from leading brands such as Evian, Nestle, and San Pellegrino showed signs of microplastic contamination. Furthermore, a meta-analysis of scientific evidence from Europe revealed that bottled water was more contaminated by microplastic than tap water.

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that are usually smaller than 5 mm. They have been a significant concern for marine pollution for a long time. With new research and detection methods, microplastics are now considered a contaminant of concern in land and water environments.

Microplastics can enter the natural environment in two ways: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are intentionally produced in textiles, cosmetics, and personal care items. For instance, microbeads used in exfoliating skin care products are one type of primary microplastic. Secondary microplastics are formed as larger plastic products break down and fragment over time.

Since the start of mass plastic production in the early 1940s, microplastics have gradually accumulated in the natural environment, with varying levels in the food chain. This means humans are constantly exposed to microplastics through inhalation, ingestion, and direct skin contact.

Detecting microplastics in the human body, specifically the stomach, was not previously considered a concern. However, the recent discovery of microplastics in the uterus and bloodstream has raised concerns among the scientific community, demanding a thorough investigation into potential health risks. Inhaled or ingested microplastics can cause irritation to tissues and organs, leading to inflammation and scarring. Furthermore, the chemicals that leach from plastics can disturb hormones and alter the gut microbiota, which can harm overall health.

Most of the bottled water brands in Bhutan are sold in plastic bottles. Additionally, plastic materials are widely used in water distribution networks nationwide. Over the past few years, many small-scale food packing companies have started using low-quality PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles for food packing and storage over extended periods. The presence of waste plastic bottles and other plastic waste in our streams and rivers, along with textile waste such as worn-out prayer flags made from nylon and polyester derivatives near waterbodies, indicates a high risk of microplastic contamination. Furthermore, the reuse of PET bottles may also need to be investigated for the possibility of microplastic contamination, as reusable PET and glass bottles were found to have higher levels of microplastic contamination (Gambino et al., 2022).

It has been observed that specific water filtration systems can remove microplastic contamination. However, these technologies are not practical for everyday use by the Bhutanese population. Therefore, to ensure public health safety, we suggest collecting baseline information on various risk factors related to emerging contaminants such as microplastics. One way to start this research is by examining the microplastic pollution in bottled water and PET bottles commonly used to sell popular products like shakam and nyakam ezays. To the best of our knowledge, currently no independent organization or any of the bottled water companies in Bhutan have conducted any research on this serious public health issue. The lack of data on this issue in Bhutan highlights the critical need for research to determine the extent of the problem in the local context. Regardless, the absence of data should not be a reason to compromise public health safety.

The article is published based on personal experiences and observations by a group of water researchers from Bhutan