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Rx for Action

A blog devoted to helping people find local medicine take-back programs and highlighting current research findings and pending legislation.


Microplastic pollutants found in the Great Lakes

Take a dip in lakes Erie, Huron, or Superior and you will be swimming in more than just water. According to a recently published study, these lakes contain an unexpectedly large amount of floating plastic debris. Even more surprising, much of what the researchers found were microplastic fragments and pellets like the kind used in toothpastes and facial and body scrubs. At less than one millimeter, these tiny pieces of plastic are too small to be filtered out at wastewater treatment facilities before the water is released into the lakes.

Researchers from 5 Gyres Institute and State University of New York (SUNY) Fredonia made the discovery in 2012 after collecting a total of 21 samples from the lakes. They found plastics in all but one sample. Of the three lakes, Lake Erie had the highest concentrations of plastics, roughly 90 percent of the total amount measured. The authors speculate that the high concentrations may be the result of currents carrying the plastics from the cities of Detroit, Cleveland, and Erie. Back in the lab, further inspection revealed that along with the microplastics, eight of the samples contained coal ash and coal fly ash (produced by coal-burning power plants).

Curious to see how Lake Michigan measures up with its sister lakes, IISG set sail this summer with members of 5 Gyres and SUNY to collect samples in southern Lake Michigan. To the naked eye, it looked like much of what the trawl collected were the same tiny microbeads found in the other three Great Lakes. We won't know for sure until later this year when Dr. Sherri Mason and her team at SUNY finish examining the 16 samples.

Of course, more complicated questions follow. Are fish or other aquatic species eating the plastics? Are toxins adhering to the particles? What impacts might microplastics have on the foodchain in Lake Michigan? Is there any risk for people who regularly consume fish from the lake?

The answers to these questions aren't yet available, but in the meantime, there are simple things that people can do to reduce the amount of plastic reaching the Great Lakes.
  • Avoid using plastic cups, straws, containers, or bags whenever possible.
  • Use facial scrubs and other personal care products that do not contain plastic microbeads. If you aren't sure whether the products you use contain the beads check out this new app.
  • Volunteer at a local beach clean-up.

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Posted by Laura Kammin at 11:55AM on 10/30/2013
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