Plastic teabags release microscopic particles into tea

Plastic teabags release microscopic particles into tea
Credit: American Chemical Society

Many people are trying to reduce their plastic use, but some tea manufacturers are moving in the opposite direction: replacing traditional paper teabags with plastic ones. Now, researchers reporting in ACS' Environmental Science & Technology have discovered that a soothing cup of the brewed beverage may come with a dose of micro- and nano-sized plastics shed from the bags. Possible health effects of ingesting these particles are currently unknown, the researchers say.

Over time, plastic breaks down into tiny microplastics and even smaller nanoplastics, the latter being less than 100 nanometers (nm) in size. (For comparison, a human hair has a diameter of about 75,000 nm.) Scientists have detected the microscopic particles in the environment, aquatic organisms and the food supply, but they don't know yet whether they are harmful to humans.

Nathalie Tufenkji and colleagues wondered whether recently introduced plastic teabags could be releasing micro- and nanoplastics into the beverage during brewing. They also wanted to explore effects of the released particles on small called Daphnia magna, or water fleas, which are model organisms often used in .

To conduct their analysis, the researchers purchased four different commercial teas packaged in plastic teabags. The researchers cut open the bags, removed the tea leaves and washed the empty bags. Then, they heated the teabags in containers of water to simulate brewing conditions.

Using , the team found that a single plastic teabag at brewing temperature released about 11.6 billion microplastic and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles into the water.

These levels were thousands of times higher than those reported previously in other foods. In another experiment, the researchers treated water fleas with various doses of the micro- and nanoplastics from teabags. Although the animals survived, they did show some anatomical and behavioral abnormalities.

More research is needed to determine if the plastics could have more subtle or chronic effects on humans, the researchers say.

Explore further

Brain damage in fish affected by plastic nanoparticles

More information: Laura M. Hernandez et al. Plastic Teabags Release Billions of Microparticles and Nanoparticles into Tea, Environmental Science & Technology (2019). DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.9b02540
Citation: Plastic teabags release microscopic particles into tea (2019, September 25) retrieved 20 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Sep 25, 2019
I think it is better to buy tea leaves container/box. Tea bags also have a thread and staple pin of some metal that may react with tea chemicals at boiling water temperature.

Sep 26, 2019
@guptm If the thread is made of cotton and the staple of aluminum, then you are fine. If the thread is made of nylon etc., then it's not fine. If the thread can subdivide into subthreads, then it's likely a natural substance. But yes, these are questions to ask of the product.

Sep 27, 2019
Is it possible that the act of "cutting" the tea bags loosens some of the particles? It would be interesting to know if there are less released with an intact bag.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more