Tag: microplastics

How many Microplastic Particles Do We Consume Every Year?

Bottled water

By Dave Long

As we become increasingly aware of the crisis surrounding plastics in the environment, we need to increase research on the health effects of the microplastics we ingest each year.

Tiny pieces of microplastic ranging from 5 millimeters down to 100 nanometers in diameter are showing up in oceans, lakes, and rivers and being entering the food chain as aquatic and marine organisms consume them. Ultimately, these microplastics will enter our bodies in larger numbers. However, we do not yet have the scientific data to determine the health effects of ingested or inhaled microplastics.

A study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology has estimated Americans consume more than 70,000 microplastic particles every year from the food we eat and the water we drink. Scientists warn that while the health impacts of ingesting these tiny particles are largely unknown, the plastic could potentially enter human tissues and cause an immune response, as well as release toxic chemicals into the body.

The analysis, done by biologists at the University of Victoria in Canada, examined data from 26 previous studies on microplastic contamination in fish, shellfish, sugars, salts, honey, alcohol, tap water, bottled water, and in urban air. It found that Americans eat and drink an estimated 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles every year, depending on age and gender. These numbers jumped to 74,000 to 121,000 when scientists included inhalation of microplastics.

People who drink only from plastic bottles can consume 90,000 microplastic particles annually compared to 4,000 particles for people who drank only tap water. When the 2018 Orb study for Business Insider was originally released, Aquafina and Dasani both told the magazine their bottled water is tested to strict standards and pass through high-quality filtration systems. Nestlé said the company hasn’t found microplastics in its water bottles beyond a “trace level”, disputing the study numbers. Evian did not respond to a request for comment. But studies suggest that particles do, in fact, exist in bottled water. They come out of our taps, too (though likely in smaller amounts than plastic bottle concentrations). The scientists warn that their findings are “likely drastic underestimates overall”.

Another marine food source of microplastics is sea salt, one kilogram of which can contain more than 600 microplastics. If you eat the maximum daily intake of 5 grams of salt, this would mean you would typically consume three microplastics particles a day. New research now shows microplastics in 90 percent of the table salt brands sampled worldwide. Salt samples from 21 countries in Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia were analyzed, and only three brands did not contain microplastics— refined sea salt from Taiwan, refined rock salt from China, and unrefined sea salt from France produced by solar evaporation. The study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology on October 4, 2018.

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 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.

Fish and shellfish aren’t our only food sources that can contain microplastics. Just 15 percent of a person’s caloric intake is associated with the consumption of up to 52,000 microplastics annually. And the researchers note that several major U.S. food groups—including poultry, beef, dairy, grains, and vegetables—have not been studied for their microplastic contamination. In addition, the scientists weren’t able to assess how much plastic might be entering our bodies from food packaging.

The study’s findings “suggest that microplastics will continue to be found in the majority, if not all, items intended for human consumption,” the scientists wrote. “If the precautionary principle were to be followed, the most effective way to reduce human consumption of microplastics will likely be to reduce the production and use of plastics.”

David Long is the founder of Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC (ESS) that provides consulting services for environmental, sustainability.

How Big is the Plastics Problem in the Great Lakes?

By Dave Long

Many people realize the world has a serious problem with plastic pollution. The crisis has been featured on television, in movies and articles in National Geographic and many other publications. For example, the news has featured the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has been estimated to be the size of the state of Texas.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is largely made up of plastics. It contains single-use plastic waste, old fishing nets and buoys, and many other plastics from around the earth that have been caught up in the ocean currents. There have been several efforts to collect the plastics and reduce the volume of the garbage patch, but these efforts have not been very successful. The sad fact is three other garbage patches have been identified in the oceans, and many small islands have been destroyed by plastic waste.

The Great Lakes contain approximately 20% of the world’s surface fresh water. Compared to ocean plastics, not much has been reported about the amount of plastics in the Great Lakes. Based on the 2016 US Geological Survey (USGS) reports, significant volumes of plastics enter the Great Lakes every year, and they are not going away. The United States and Canada together discard 22 million pounds of plastic into the waters of the Great Lakes each year, according to a 2016 Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) study. Much of it washes up along the shores, accounting for 80 percent of the litter found there. Researchers report that Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland, and Detroit are the worst contributors to plastic pollution. Half of the plastic dumped into the Great Lakes—11 million pounds—goes into Lake Michigan. Lake Erie places second, receiving 5.5 million pounds. Lake Ontario gets 3 million pounds of plastic waste a year, with Lake Huron and Lake Superior receiving smaller amounts.

Plastic pollution in Lake Michigan represents approximately the equivalent of 100 Olympic-sized pools full of plastic bottles dumped into the lake every year. Most of the particles from Chicago and Milwaukee end up accumulating on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, while the particles from Detroit and Cleveland end up along the southern coast of the eastern basin of Lake Erie.

According to an article in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, tiny pieces of harmful plastic called microplastics are prevalent in many rivers that flow into the Great Lakes. Results are also illustrated on a new USGS microplastics website. This study characterized the quantity, size, and shapes of floating micro- and macroplastics in 29 Great Lakes tributaries in six states with adjacent land being forested, farmland, and urban areas. Water contributions came primarily from runoff and wastewater effluent. Rivers ran through areas with varied population densities and hydrologic conditions. Plastic particles were sorted by size, counted, and categorized.

Microplastics were found in all 107 samples, with a maximum concentration of 32 particles/m3 and a median of 1.9 particles/m3. Ninety-eight percent of sampled plastic particles were less than 4.75 millimeters in diameter and therefore considered microplastics. Urban watersheds had the highest concentrations of microplastics, but microplastics were also present in streams in forested and agricultural areas.

In summary, the USGS found 12% of fish from the Great Lakes contained plastic particles, 1,285 plastic particles in a square foot of river sediment, and 112,000 particles per square mile of Great Lakes water.

Where do microplastics come from? One source is photodegradation and/or mechanical breakdown of larger items, such as Styrofoam, plastic bags, bottles, wrappers, cigarette butts, and tires. As these plastics are exposed to sunlight, wind, waves, and water currents, larger pieces get smaller and smaller. Unfortunately, filters from cigarette butts are one of the most common types of plastic pollution found on a beach and lake bottom. Many smokers simply flick their cigarette butts on the ground, or worse, in the lakes. Some 95% of cigarette filters are made of tightly packed white cellulose acetate (a plastic). These small fibers break down into smaller and smaller particles, but it takes hundreds of years for cigarette filters to degrade.

Another source of microplastics, a subgroup called microfiber, comes from washing machines. Mark Browne’s research demonstrated a large percentage of the microplastic pollution comes from synthetic fabrics like nylon and acrylic fabrics. Patagonia, in its self-funded study by the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, analyzed water and sediment samples from around the world and concluded “Microfibers are ubiquitous in the aquatic environment.” Patagonia in its own laundry study verified that large quantities of microfibers were released when washing synthetic garments, especially fleece. They also verified that wastewater treatment plants receive large quantities of microfibers and the majority of the microfibers pass through wastewater treatment plants because they are too small for treatment plants to filter.

Knowing that aquatic wildlife eat these microfibers is one thing; but seeing the impact on an individual fish brings this crisis to life—or rather, death. Sherri Mason, a professor of environmental chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia, is an expert in plastic pollution, having studied its impact on the Great Lakes ecosystem for several years. Through Mason’s research, she has seen the significant impact of the food chain in the Great Lakes. Cutting open fish, she was alarmed at what she found.  The body cavity of the fish was filled with synthetic fibers. Through the microscope, they seemed to be weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract.

What are the known risks from microplastics? We know that microplastics and microfibers can be harmful to wildlife. They are often ingested by birds, fish, oysters, mussels, and zooplankton. Ingestion is often a physical hazard blocking the intestine, interfering with reproduction, and even causing death.

They can also be a toxic hazard. Plastic particles can accumulate contaminants such polychlorinated organics, polycyclic hydrocarbons, and pesticides, which can be associated with endocrine disruption and cancer. These contaminants can accumulate within the food chain and end up in the fish we eat. Microfibers from garments have often been treated with toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, brominated flame retardants and fluorinated fabric treatments. In a 2012 study, Mason found Lake Erie had higher concentrations of microplastics than any other body of water on Earth. Absorbed on these tiny pieces of plastic they found pollutants, such as DDT, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), too small for treatment plants to filter out.

Are those living around the Great Lakes ingesting microplastics and microfibers? If humans are eating fish and other wildlife from the Great Lakes, they are likely consuming microplastics. Your favorite beer, if manufactured with Great Lakes water, likely contains microplastics or microfibers. Microfibers have been found in bottled water derived from the Great Lakes and microplastics and microfibers have been found in small quantities in some public water systems. Unfortunately, to date, very little research has been conducted on the effects of microplastics being ingested by humans. Much research will be required to determine the health or physical impacts to human ingestion of microfibers and microplastics.

David Long is the founder of Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC (ESS) that provides consulting services for environmental, sustainability. He will address potential methods to reduce the volume of plastics entering the Great Lakes and its tributaries in a future article.

Microplastics Invading the Food Chain

Photo: Possible microplastic mass in lower segment of Copepod

By David Long

The Great Lakes face many challenges. Some are well-known, such as Asian carp, but some are almost invisible, such as microplastics.

Small plastic detritus, termed “microplastics” or “microfibers,” are a widespread contaminant in aquatic ecosystems including the Great Lakes.

Research reported in Environmental Science and Technology suggests that marine microplastic debris can have a negative impact upon zooplankton function and health. It can be surmised that the zooplankton communities of the Great Lakes can also be negatively impacted by microfibers. A major concern is that since zooplankton is at the bottom of the food chain microplastics (microfibers) can cause a changes in the zooplankton community. This can harm Great Lakes fisheries.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines microplastics as small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long that can be harmful to our aquatic life. They are created by the degradation of larger items, such as discarded single use plastic containers, effluent from wastewater treatment plants and even fallout from the air. Microplastics from wastewater treatment plants comes from discarded plastics, laundering fleece, synthetic fiber clothing, and waste from carpet cleaning. Microplastics in airborne dust can enter the water through wind and runoff from roads and other impervious surfaces.

Ingestion of microplastics by organisms, including mussels, worms, fish, and seabirds, has been widely reported, but the impact of microplastics on zooplankton remains under-researched. It is very difficult to identify microfibers in zooplankton. Microplastics are best identified using 3D bioimaging techniques to document ingestion, egestion, and adherence of microplastics.

Microplastics have been observed adhering to the external carapace and appendages of exposed zooplankton. Ingestion of microplastics can interfere with the digestive system. More research is needed to understand the impact of microplastic debris on zooplankton.

Microplastics and microfibers pollution is well documented in research from universities such as the University of Michigan, Notre Dame, The University of Chicago, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and the State University of New York, Fredonia. Researchers from these schools as well as the U.S. Geological Survey have documented the presence of microplastics and microfibers in the Great Lakes since 2013.

Researchers have seen the volume of microplastics and microfibers increase over the years. Microfibers and microplastics have been found in beer brewed with Great Lakes water and drinking water taken from the Great Lakes. It is estimated about 22 million pounds of plastics enter the Great Lakes each year. Unfortunately, there is no legislation that protects our valuable Great Lakes water from plastic pollution.

There are no known solutions for cleaning up microplastic pollution in our lakes and oceans. Plastic does not degrade, it only breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. The only solution for the future is to reduce the amount of single-use plastics and increase the percentage of plastic that is recycled. Currently only 9% of plastic in the United States is recycled. It is cheaper to make virgin plastic from oil than to recycle plastic. Until the economics change, the industry will continue to make virgin plastic from oil and the recycle rate for plastics will remain low.

David Long is the founder of Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC (ESS) that provides consulting services for environmental, sustainability.