Microscopic Plastic Particles Found Throughout The Great Lakes
September 2, 2013

Microscopic Plastic Particles Found Throughout The Great Lakes

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The Great Lakes, the largest source of fresh water in the world, may not be so fresh anymore. That’s according to researchers with the University of Wisconsin-Superior, who, for the second year in a row, have found plastic particles in the Great Lakes.

The team said this has little to do with empty plastic bottles found drifting along the shores of these large lakes. The problem is much worse. These particles being discovered are on a microscopic scale, making it easy for them to be swallowed by fish and perhaps humans who get drinking water from these lakes.

Lorena Rios-Mendoza, an assistant professor of chemistry at UWS, said her team last year uncovered evidence of plastic particles in Lake Superior, Erie and Huron. This year the team found evidence in Lake Michigan and Ontario. She said the team also found particles in Lake St. Clair, a smaller lake situated between Lake Huron and Lake Erie.

According to the research team, the particles could very well be coming from scrubbing elements of our daily use of hygiene products and household chemicals.

Over the course of just a few days, the team found thousands of tiny bead-sized plastic particles in the lake while dragging with fine mesh nets.  Some of the beads were so small they could only be seen using a microscope. It’s these tiniest ones that can be mistaken for food, potentially harming fish species and humans alike. And even if the particles do not choke or kill those that consume them, their chemical toxins are still contaminants and can cause problems down the road.

The team explained how plastic works as a chemical sponge and will attract other toxins dissolved in water. When observing these tiny particles closely, the team found evidence of PCBs, DDTs and dioxins. Even if these plastic particles are not swallowed by humans, fish or other animals, it floats around the lake distributing toxins throughout the aqueous environment.

Mary Balcer, director of the Lake Superior Research Institute at UWS, who studies traditional Great Lakes threats, said plastics are the newest culprit on the list of ecological troubles for the region’s waterways.

“The accumulation of plastic particles is a great threat to our natural ecosystem and to the humans who use Lake Superior for our drinking water supply,” Balcer told Duluth News Tribune.

While the researchers have found evidence of particles in all the Great Lakes as well as Lake St. Clair, Rios-Mendoza said the largest concentration of these plastics occur in Lake Erie. She noted this is likely because, due to the floatability of these particles, they travel downstream through the system and end up in Lake Erie.

Although these tiny particles can float their way downstream, they have also been discovered in sediment, meaning not all the plastic floats away.

Rios-Mendoza said she was not surprised to find plastic building up in the Great Lakes ecosystem. She has studied plastic build-up in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans since 2003, and expected to find it in the Great Lakes when she transferred to UWS in 2010.

What was surprising, however, was the size of the particles. Most were as tiny as a grain of sand. Those found in the ocean ecosystem have generally been much larger.

The findings are now raising questions and concerns about the impact these tiny particles are having on the environment, as well as the impact the toxins found therein  have on animals and humans that drink the water and eat the fish.

Rios-Mendoza said during a news briefing last Thursday people need to be reminded about the three R’s of sustainability – reduce, reuse, recycle – when it comes to plastics. It is key that we keep plastic out of the environment, she said.

“But I have a fourth one: Refuse,” she said. “If someone offers you a plastic bag for your sandwich, say no. … People ask, ‘Where does this come from?’ We are the source.”

Refusing to use any products that contain polymer or plastic ingredients can go a long way to saving the environment. As well, she urged, people should avoid using any beauty or health products that contain polypropylene and polyethylene as ingredients.

Several companies are now vowing to phase out these chemicals in their products.

"We have no idea how long some of these plastics stay in the ocean, could be more than 40 years," Rios-Mendoza said earlier this month in a UWS Jacket Journal piece. The amount of plastic debris in our Great Lakes increases every day and degrades so slowly that it effectively never disappears, it only disperses, she said.

And the screens utilized by waste water treatment facilities do not have the capability of keeping such tiny particles out of the system.

Rios-Mendoza is working with 5 Gyres Institute, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group. Together they plan to continue to monitor the Great Lakes.

Rios-Mendoza said it is very important alternatives are found that do not harm the environment. While she does not want to hinder the plastic manufacturing industry, she does want to find alternatives and educate users on safer measures for the environment.

She said changing consumer habits would be the easiest and cheapest way to make an impact right away.

Rios-Mendoza presented some of her research in April at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she gave an overview on how the accumulation of microplastics create significant risks to the world’s oceans as well as the Great Lakes environment because of the known potential of these particles to absorb organic pollutants that can be harmful to aquatic organisms.