KHARAGPUR, India — For many people, the day doesn’t start until they have their first cup of hot coffee. No matter what you drink to warm yourself up on a chilly morning, a new study finds the cup you choose could be a serious health hazard. Researchers in India reveal drinking coffee and other hot beverages from paper cups can release tens of thousands of potentially harmful plastic particles into your drink.
“In the 15 minutes it takes for coffee or tea to be consumed, the microplastic layer on the cup degrades. It releases 25,000 micron-sized particles into the hot beverage,” lead study author Dr. Sudha Goel explains in a statement to SWNS.
“An average person drinking three regular cups of tea or coffee daily, in a paper cup, would end up ingesting 75,000 tiny microplastic particles which are invisible to the naked eye.”
Tiny particles in paper coffee cups are a growing concern
Researchers say these nearly-invisible microplastics are becoming a major threat to human health. They’re typically less than 0.2 inches across, but can be as small as one-fiftieth the width of a human hair. Earlier this year, a team in the United States discovered microplastics inside human organs for the first time. It is feared this contamination could lead to cancer or infertility. Researchers also note microplastic contamination can cause inflammation in animals.
Manufacturers produced around 264 billion paper cups last year, with many of those going to people consuming tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and even soups. That number is equivalent to 35 paper cups for every person on the planet.
The demand for easily disposable products has been fueled by the rising number of takeout services around the world. Many people seek ready-to-eat meals to cater to their increasingly hectic lifestyles. Paper cups also do not require cleaning and typically don’t draw the same environmental backlash that plastic and Styrofoam containers do. Despite this, Dr. Sudha says there is still a price to be paid for this convenience.
“Microplastics act as carriers for contaminants like ions, toxic heavy metals such as palladium, chromium and cadmium, as well as organic compounds that are water repelling and can cross over into the animal kingdom,” the researcher from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur adds.
“When ingested regularly over time, the health implications could be serious.”
‘Startling’ levels of contamination in hot beverages
In experiments, Sudha’s team poured ultra-pure (MilliQ) water into paper cups at temperatures between 85 to 90 degrees Celsius (185-195 degrees Fahrenheit) and then allowed them to sit for 15 minutes. Study authors then analyzed the hot liquid under a fluorescent microscope. The plastic linings were also examined separately for changes in physical, chemical, and mechanical properties. Dr. Sudha described the results as “startling.”
“We could confirm the release into the MilliQ water of microplastic particles using a scanner. A disposable paper cup exposed to hot liquid for 15 minutes will have approximately 10.2 billion submicron sized particles.”
A sensitive technique that separates chemicals then identified microplastics in the hot water. Most disturbingly, analysis of the plastic films discovered the presence of heavy metals in the liners.
“This study shows careful consideration needs to be done before the promotion of replacements for bio-hazardous products and environmental pollutants,” Institute director Professor Virendra Tewari says. “We have been quick to replace plastics cups and glasses with disposable paper cups.”
The costly process of replacing paper cups
Tewari suggests a return to traditional, disposable terracotta cups that are still in use in many parts of India. Dr. Sudha contends the convenience of paper cups makes it hard to find a suitable replacement. In modern offices, these products go hand-in-hand with coffee-vending machines and other hot beverage dispensers.
“There is definitely a push factor from the companies that install and maintain coffee or tea vending machines that are ubiquitous in offices,” a spokesman for the environmental charity Ecolife says. “Apart from ingesting microplastics, as outlined in the study, paper cups leave behind thin plastics that contaminate the environment. Disposable paper cups do not decompose in a landfill and cannot be recycled. There is a continuous and growing demand for them that can only be met by further deforestation.”
Ecolife is researching non-plastic, plant-based films that can coat paper cups and are biodegradable. Unfortunately, this process makes them twice as expensive to make.
Researchers find that street-side tea and coffee venders have very small sales margins. This pushes them to serve their beverages in the cheapest possible cups, often lined with wax, making them even more dangerous.
“About the only way to get people to use safer materials is for the government to be proactive and reduce taxes on the manufacture of paper cups and perhaps even subsidize them, given the havoc they can play on the health of unsuspecting populations,” the Ecolife spokesman adds.