This post was also published in 2012 and is the third most read environmental post on ThumbWind. To me the Microplastic in the Great Lakes development is disheartening but so evident with plastic debris commonly washing up on our beach. This is a featured article in the Our Water, Our Life Series.
The next time you brush your teeth or wash your face you may be contributing to adding plastic into the Great Lakes. The New York Times is reporting that microplastics are now identified as a serious threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem. As of now, there is no way to stop the plastic contamination from products with microplastics from entering the watershed.
The Great Lakes are now a Plastic Soup
In a 2012 study was conducted by the 5 Gyres Institute headed by Dr. Sherri Mason SUNY College at Fredonia New York. Water samples in July 2012 were taken in the Lakes Superior, Huron, Erie and Ontario and showed an average abundance was approximately 43,000 microplastic particles/km2. One sample taken downstream from two major cities in Lake Erie, contained over 466,000 particles/km2, greater than all other sample areas combined. Samples taken in Lake Huron just north of Port Austin, Michigan showed a microplastic contamination range between 10,000 and 20,000 microplastic particles/km2. This was the first study to analyze the impact of plastic contamination of the Great Lakes. The surprise is that concentrations of plastic contamination exceed data collected in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Detrimental Effect on Humans Unknown but Likely
Scientists are still working through the links of the chain leading back to humans; about 65 million pounds of fish are caught in the Great Lakes each year. Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, said that the bits of plastic have a great capacity to attract persistent pollutants to their surface. “Plastics are not just acting as mimic food, but they can also cause physical damage to the organism,” she said. She has examined fish guts and found plastic fibers — possibly from the breakdown of synthetic fabrics through clothes washing — that are laden with the chemicals, and said she expected to find beads as well. The entire food chain in the Great Lakes region appears to be affected.
“Microplastics are really concerning because so many fish or marine species ingest them,” Wallace said. “Especially for human health, it’s something we’re thinking about. If we eat those fish that eat those microplastics, what does that mean?” — Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza
The plastic pollution problem maybe even worse in the Great Lakes than in the oceans, Rios said. Her team found that the number of microparticles — which are more harmful to marine life because of their small size — was 24 percent higher in the Great Lakes than in samples they collected in the Southern Atlantic Ocean.
Waste Treatment Plants Fall Short
While many of the beads appear to enter the environment when storms cause many wastewater treatment plants to release raw sewage, it is increasingly clear that the beads and microfibers slip through the processing plants as well, Dr. Mason said at a sewage treatment plant in North East, a town near Erie.
Studies are currently underway to assess the effectiveness of waste treatment plants in the Great Lakes region. Dr. Mason and several students are looking at the presence of these plastics and synthetic materials passing through wastewater treatment plants. This would cover water that was flushed down toilets and passed through household drains. Currently, Mason’s study is focused on treatment plants in upstate New York.
Products to Avoid Containing Microplastics
Facial and body scrubs are the largest contributor to microplastic contamination. In a study conducted by 5 Gyres, a single tube of Neutrogena “Deep Clean” contained over 350,000 plastic particles. Microplastic particles and microbeads can be found in facial scrubs, shampoos & soaps, toothpaste, eyeliners, lip gloss, deodorant and sunblock sticks. These microparticles are made of Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and Nylon. PE and PP are the most common.
Some companies have promised a voluntary phase-out of plastic beads. Others have made no commitments.
Promises to phase-out:
- Beiersdorf (no set date)
- Colgate-Palmolive (by end of 2014)
- Johnson & Johnson (by end of 2015)
- L’Oreal (no set date)
- Procter & Gamble (by end of 2017)
- Unilever (by end of 2015) (D)
What may be a bigger factor is our clothing. Fibers fall off our clothing every time we launder them. These microfibers get past waste treatment and into our water system.
Citations and Sources for Microplastic Pollution
- New York Times Scientists Turn Their Gaze Toward Tiny Threats to Great Lakes, December 14, 2013. By John Schwartz
- Polluting plastic particles invade the Great Lakes, Reported by American Chemical Society, April 8, 2013, By Lorena M. Rios Mendoza, Ph.D
- Microplastics in consumer products and in the marine environment, Position Paper – 2013, 5 Gyres Institute, Plastic Soup Foundation, Surfrider Foundation, Plastic Free Seas, Clean Seas Coalition
- Microplastics in Drinking Water and Beer
- SUNY Fredonia Research Leads to Call for Ban on Microplastics (wkbw.com)
- Microplastics a problem in the Great Lakes (northcountrypublicradio.org)
- US Coast Guard for the Great Lakes(Opens in a new browser tab)