When it comes to good consumer habits, numerous (and often conflicting) reports have people questioning everything from their coffee drinking to their phone usage, but until recently, curling up with a warm mug of tea seemed OK. A new study may change that. As the CBC reports, certain types of tea bags could deposit billions of microplastic particles into your tea.
Nathalie Tufenkji, who teaches chemical engineering at McGill University in Montreal, was inspired to investigate the plastic content of tea after ordering the hot beverage from a coffee shop one day. Instead of a classic, compostable paper tea bag, her tea leaves came bundled in a pouch made from a silken material. The item was actually made from plastic, and it was an example of the "fancy" teabags made from nylon and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) that are gaining popularity with certain tea brands.
So what does that mean for your morning cup of tea? According to the researchers' study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, steeping one of these bags in hot water can release up to 11.6 billion microplastic particles and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles into your drink. Microplastics are miniscule plastic bits no biggest than a dust mote, and nanoplastics are even smaller. Even with billions of them swirling in your teacup, the particles add up to a total plastic content of just one-sixtieth of a milligram.
Microplastics aren't limited to fancy tea bags. Seafood, table salt, and even tap water all contain tiny pieces of plastic. We consume so much of it that one study found we're excreting 20 particles of the stuff per every quarter pound of waste. But even in a world where microplastics are unavoidable, the numbers in this recent study are noteworthy: Tea made from the plastic tea bags studied contains thousands of times more plastic that what has been observed in other food products.
The study indicates that the plastic content of some teas is high, but it doesn't say what that means for your health. That's because no evidence yet shows microplastics are harmful to humans when ingested. It's possible that the adverse health effects will become more apparent as the current population ages, but it's also possible that the human body deals with microplastics the same way it deals with other environmental toxins.
The tea bag study also comes with some caveats: The researchers looked at only four tea bags (and an additional four were used as controls), so a larger sample size may have revealed that this level of microplastic content isn't found in all tea made from plastic-based bags. If you'd still prefer to avoid mixing plastic with hot beverages, look for tea brands that use biodegradable paper and steer clear of pyramid-shaped bags and other pouches made from silky mesh material. Not only are paper bags lower in plastic contaminants, but they also add less waste to the environment.