California, the first state in the U.S. to ban plastic bags, now wants to be the first government in the world to take a look at microplastics in drinking water.
Regulators at the State Water Board voted June 16 to open a multiyear review of microplastics in water supplies, including developing rules to measure it and potentially issue health guidelines.
While the state action is in its early stages, the plan is attracting a lot of attention from industry and environmental organizations who say it could pave the way for similar moves elsewhere.
"As the first regulatory agency in the world to specifically define microplastics in drinking water, the board decision will have far-reaching impacts," said Miho Ligare, plastics pollution coordinator with the San Clemente, Calif.-based Surfrider Foundation.
Board officials said much remains unknown around the science and what it may mean for human health. The unanimous vote by the five-member body is probably more akin to putting a toe in the water.
The June 16 vote adopted a preliminary definition of microplastics to meet a July 1 deadline set by a 2018 state law.
But there's more to come, such as plans to develop testing protocols by the middle of 2021, do four years of measuring and make those results public, also ordered by lawmakers in Sacramento.
Legislators who passed the law said they were concerned about studies of nearly 160 cities worldwide that found microplastics in 83 percent of samples and research noting microplastics in fish sold for consumption in California, New Jersey and Indonesia.
A report from the board's staff said it would be the first government agency in the world to try to define microplastics in drinking water, although others like the European Chemicals Agency are developing definitions for other uses.
"This is a fast-moving field," said Board Chairman Joaquin Esquivel. "I know there will continue to be robust discussion within the CalEPA family… around not just the definition but how we best regulate and understand plastics, both micro and macro, throughout the watersheds."