Tiny plastics are in our Great Lakes, impacting human health and aquatic life

Around 15 years ago was when researchers first starting paying serious attention to microplastics in our waterways. A microplastic is defined as a piece of manufactured plastic that is less than five millimeters in size. Microplastics come from a variety of sources, including from larger plastics that break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Some microplastics are so tiny that they can make it through our water filtration systems and end up in our drinking water.

These debris pose a potentially serious threat to the health of our aquatic life and people. Research has shown that microplastics are ingested by fish. Because microplastics are associated with chemicals that are used in the manufacturing process, there are concerns of physical and chemical toxicity in humans and aquatic life.

The article below was written by John Hageman and details how micoplastics are already impacting humans and the environment.

Microplastics found in Great Lakes beer — and fish

5/25/2018 10:47 PM

John Hageman

With Memorial Day weekend upon us, I hate to be the one to spring this on any thirsty readers.

But according to collaborative research done by scientists at the University of Minnesota and the State University of New York at Fredonia, microplastic fibers or particles were present in each brand of beer that they tested that used tap water drawn from the Great Lakes.

In their paper, published in the Journal, Public Library of Science, the team found that in each of the 12 mainly Pilsner-style beers tested from all five Great Lakes, the number of particles per Liter ranged from 0-14.3 and averaged 4.05. The one with 0 in one of their samples had microfibers in other trials.

There were variation in particle counts, which were mostly blue, red/pink and brown microfibers that made up 98.4 percent of the U.S. beer microplastic pollution. The highest and lowest counts were found in two brands of beer that came from the same tap water source.

Before you give up domestic beers, another study found 2-79 microplastic particles/L with an average of 22.6/L in 24 German beers that were brewed from treated tap water drawn from freshwater lakes there. Their beer contained more fragments and granules and a lower percentage of fibers.

For tap water samples collected worldwide, their lab surprisingly found that there were 50 percent more microplastics in U.S. tap water than in samples taken from India and Lebanon and three times more here than from Indonesia and Uganda.

Don’t worry about choking on them though — the microplastics in the water ranged from 0.10-5.0mm and averaged 0.96mm and the ones in the beer ranged from 0.1-5.0 mm and averaged 0.98mm long. However, plastics have been documented to be cytotoxic to human cells.

Meanwhile, in a study funded by the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant program, researchers from Loyola University collected samples from three rivers that flow into Lake Michigan to search for the presence of microplastic pollution.

They found that the densities were lowest in the mostly-forested Muskegon River, followed by the mostly-agricultural St. Joseph River and highest in the mixed rural/urban Milwaukee River.

Again, microfibers composed 99 percent of the microplastic collected by the team. Acrylic, nylon, spandex and polyester fibers erode away each time clothes are washed and end up going down the drain and eventually making their way through wastewater treatment plants and into the watershed.

According to a 2011 article published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, a single fleece jacket could shed 1,900 fibers every time it is washed.

The research team captured 74 sportfish, such as bass from the three rivers and found 85 percent of them had microplastic particles in their digestive system, with an average of 13 particles of microplastic each when present.

They speculated that the fish consumed microplastics by directly feeding on them or by eating some invertebrates that had previously ingested some. They may also swallow some while ingesting water or from contact with river bottom sediments.

Microplastics are thought to be able to adsorb pesticides and industrial chemicals such as Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), Polychlorinated bisphenols (PCBs), Ultraviolet stabilizers and flame retardants being ingested by aquatic organisms, which can create consequences.

According to the U.S. EPA, eight trillion microplastics per day are released into our waters, including plastic fragments from clothing, plastic containers, cosmetic scrubbing beads, decaying fishing line, foam, plastic film (wrappers), cigarette filters and more.

Americans use 2,500,000 plastic beverage containers per hour, 1,500 plastic bags per year and 93 percent of us test positive for a chemical found in plastic food and water containers, Bisphenol A (BPA). Humans likely ingest microplastics when consuming mussels, oysters and some fish species.

After they break down through mechanical destruction, sun degradation or other decay, large microplastics are 1-to-5 millimeters and small microplastics are 1 micron-to-1 millimeter in diameter, respectively.

Cosmetic microbeads have largely been discontinued through voluntary action, and then legislatively, eliminating one known source.

Solutions to other microplastic pollution sources include using filters inside washing machines to trap loose microfibers, increasing plastic beverage container recycling efforts, which was reported to be only 8.8 percent in 2012, and increase penalties for littering.

Cigarette butts, the most numerous item encountered on beach and other litter clean ups, have plastic in the filters, which break into tiny pieces over time and deliver adsorbed toxins to aquatic organisms which ingest them.

Smokers need to be reminded that Lake Erie is not their ashtray.

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Remember, we can all do our part in keeping our Great Lakes and oceans clean by first reducing our use of plastics, then reusing, and then recycling.