TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Penny Kusumastuti Lukito has no time for jetlag. On Thursday night last week, directly after flying in from Vienna, Austria, where she attended a conference of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the chair of the Food and Drug Regulatory Agency (BPOM) went straight to her office for marathon meetings.
On the agenda was the presence of microplastics in bottled water in nine countries, including Indonesia. This discovery was made by researchers from the State University of New York at Fredonia and an American non-profit media organization called Orb Media, and was backed up by independent research carried out for Tempo in a chemistry lab at the University of Indonesia. The results were published around the world last Thursday. "We are waiting for the results of a WHO study," says Penny, 54.
According to Penny, the World Health Organization (WHO) has yet to determine the safe levels of microplastics in drinks. Without standardization, it is difficult to translate the impact of the international investigation into the aspects concerning health. "There is no need for the public to panic," she said, sipping one of the brands of bottled water reported to contain microplastics.
The microplastics issue has once again pushed the BPOM into the limelight. Last month, the organization suspended the distribution license of Albothyl, which had been used for 30 years to treat mouth ulcers, as well as three other brands containing policresulen as it can cause the sores to grow and cause infection. Penny’s own husband was one of the victims.
After a meeting Friday afternoon last week, Penny spoke with Tempo journalists Maulana, Nur Alfiyah, Indri Maulidar and Angelina Anjar at her office in Jalan Percetakan Negara, Central Jakarta. The former National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) official also spoke about the weaknesses of the BPOM, which she has headed for less than two years, from the lack of legal standards to the poor quality and low numbers of her staff. She also redirected some questions to Nurma Hidayati, Deputy for Oversight of Therapeutic products, Narcotics, Psychotropics and Addictive substances.
What is your response to the discovery of microplastics in bottled water?
For drinking water standards, we refer to the WHO. In the drinking water standard issued by the WHO, there is no limit on the level of microplastics. If a standard is issued later, there must be studies first about the toxic effects and the level of microplastics that can be tolerated. Because these studies have not yet been done, the WHO has only issued a statement saying it will reexamine the findings.
What will the Food and Drug Regulatory Agency do?
We are waiting for the WHO to issue a statement about the dangers of microplastics and the levels that can be tolerated by the human body. There is no need for the public to panic.
Will the BPOM also test the contents of bottled water?
I have asked the research center to develop an analysis method. Perhaps, seeing as there is no standard to act as a guideline, there has been no development of analysis methods. We have no problem gathering data on microplastics. But what do we do with it? We will first have to look at the standards that will be issued by the WHO.
Some have criticized the methodology for testing bottled water and expressed their doubts about the validity. What do you say?
I believe it’s valid. But the tests only find the level of microplastics in bottled water. Then, what should we do? Further studies are needed to determine the safe levels and the effects on public health, so we can include them in a policy that will protect the public.
Should there be a statement that these products contain microplastics?
What for? The important thing is a standard that indicates the danger level. If there are no studies showing negative effects of microplastics on health, the products can still be consumed. Now we just have to decide if we want to take the risk of consuming these products or not.
How does the BPOM monitor bottled water?
The BPOM has a water laboratory. Tap water is our priority. Therefore, every year, we produce a report on a sample of water from all regional offices. We test all aspects including hygiene to find the level of bacterial contamination. But there is no standard for microplastics. Now, we need to push the WHO to do a study that we can use as a reference for setting tap water standards.
Last September, microplastics were found in mains water in Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Bekasi and South Tangerang. Has the BPOM followed this up?
Not yet. It is not only us; the local water companies also follow WHO standards in processing water. If a microplastics standard is issued, additional technology will be needed to determine the microplastics level. This needs a process.
The BPOM revoked the distribution permit of Albothyl in February. On what basis was this done?
This was part of the BPOM’s oversight related to pharmo-vigilance, namely the detection, measuring, understanding and checking of the side-effects of medicines. We acted following a report from our health officials who had seen patients with infections. Before making policies, we need to do studies.
The report was received two years ago. Why did it take so long?
Yes. We took too long talking to this expert, then that expert. We should work faster.
Read the full interview in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine