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Study shows that Brits drink enough coffee and tea to get into the water supply

Tim Nelson
September 21, 2018

At this point, most coffee drinkers have at least a passing familiarity with the relationship between their daily habit and its environmental impact. That’s what’s inspired certain coffeehouses to ditch straws, and bigger chains like Starbucks to work on cups that could actually be recycled.

It turns out that it’s not just the cups and straws that are affecting our earth, but the coffee itself. That’s according to a study of pollutants that have seeped into British groundwater, which found that in addition to the usual pesticides and fuel-derived hydrocarbons, caffeine is contaminating the water supply. In urban areas like London, as much as 10 micrograms of caffeine could be detected in one liter of groundwater.

How does that even happen? It’s not like Londoners routinely toss their unfinished cold brews into the Thames or lower lattes into old-timey wells for trapped children to sip. Instead, it likely has something to do with leaky sewers. When these come into contact with certain vulnerable types of aquifers (the water-permeable layer of rock used in reservoirs) like limestone or chalk, an unfortunate cross-contamination can take place. The end result is a certain amount of wastewater that ends up just beneath the earth’s surface, mixed in with the cleaner supply.

Of course, the caffeine in the groundwater doesn’t just come from coffee. The stimulant is found in many beverages, and the fact that the Brits love their tea oh so much might have also been a contributing factor with regards to the concentrations observed. Even still, a shot of espresso has roughly 1,000 times the amount of caffeine as you’d find in even the most buzzy London groundwater.

So there you have it: It’s probable that the British (and likely Americans too) are microdosing caffeine every time they take a sip of tap water. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be more worried about the fact that pesticides were sampled in higher concentrations, because it’s certainly alarming. But if we’re going to slowly poison both the planet and ourselves, it’s at least comforting to know that we’ll be awake to watch it happen.

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