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Microplastics threaten ecosystems and human health in Northeast Ohio

Plastic pollution Great Lakes
Source: 5 Gyres Institute

Last July, I took part in my first beach cleanup with Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. This event was a truly eye opening experience for me, as I was able to get firsthand exposure to the scale of the trash problem on Lake Erie’s shores.

But while most of the other volunteers focused on the large and unusual items we found, I was particularly discouraged by the prevalence of small pieces of plastic and styrofoam. These tiny particles of plastic pollution, known as microplastic, are the real threat to the health of Lake Erie’s ecosystem.

During the fall of 2012, the 5 Gyres Institute and the State University of New York released a study on the problem of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. The research provided the first comprehensive plastic pollution survey of the lakes, and it represents an important baseline against which we can measure progress or, God forbid, further regression.

According to the survey, the researchers primarily found high concentrations of this microplastic, which is a piece of plastic debris less than 5 millimeters in diameter. According to the study,

One sample drawn near the border of Lake Erie’s central and eastern basins yielded 600,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer — twice the number found in the most contaminated oceanic sample on record, Mason said.

A second sample in Lake Erie yielded 450,000 plastic pieces, while the average sample across the three lakes studied yielded about 8,000 plastic pieces.

Microplastic litter comes from a variety of sources, including the breaking down of larger pieces of plastic by the elements; this was the primary source of the plastic and styrofoam pieces that I found littering Perkins Beach. I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say that, in some areas, these pieces of plastic had become almost as numerous as the grains of sand. They are clearly an integral part of the beach at this point.

However, another key source of microplastic are conventional cosmetics and personal cleaning supplies, many of which contain small, abrasive plastic pellets known as microbeads. These pellets serve as exfoliants, and they have become increasingly popular in recent years. Because these plastic pieces are frequently used in the presence of water, i.e. in the shower, they readily enter our watercourses. Moreover, due to their diminutive size, it is nearly impossible for traditional wastewater treatment plants to adequately filter them out. Researchers from Cleveland State find microbeads in water samples from the Westerly Wastewater Treatment Plant on a regular basis.

Because it is so small and can be easily ingested by aquatic life and waterfowl, microplastic poses a major threat to the health of aquatic ecosystems like Lake Erie. It can leach chemicals into the bodies of these aquatic organisms and clearly bioaccumulates overtime. One study released last year found that chemicals contained in microplastic can compromise the immune and endocrine systems of aquatic organisms, leaving them far more vulnerable to external stressors.

Even more disturbingly, evidence is mounting that microplastic represents a direct threat to human health as well. Ann Rios, a scientist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODRN) told Scientific American that these pieces of plastic are “essentially solid oil,” enabling them to readily absorb chemicals and pollutants suspended in the water. These include harmful chemicals released from Northeast Ohio’s many coal-fired power plants and industrial factories, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and persistent organic pollutants (POPs), like PCBs and DDT.

Though Congress banned such chemicals decades ago and the United Nations’ Stockholm Convention on POPs went into effect in 1995, these toxins remain. As Scientific American noted,

The pollutants can remain in the environment for more than 50 years and can accumulate in fish and other organisms, proceeding up the food chain on ingestion by other species. PAHs can cause DNA damage in organisms that accumulate higher concentrations, which, in turn, can lead to cancer or physiological impairment. PCBs can cause cardiac problems, skeletal deformities and neurological deficiencies. Some of the compounds are classified as endocrine disrupters, meaning they affect hormone levels and systems in plants, animals and even people.

Furthermore, given their makeup, these microplastics will also persist in the environment for centuries to come. They also migrate freely with ocean currents, making it far more difficult to address the problem. A recent study in the journal Earth’s Future notes that microplastics have even become embedded in Arctic sea ice. The study’s authors discovered concentrations of plastic particles that ranged from 38 to 234 particles per cubic meter of ice; these concentrations were orders of magnitude higher than those found in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

As Arctic sea ice continues to melt due to climate change, it will shift from a net microplastic sink to a net source. Using current trends, the researchers project that melting ice could release more than one trillion pieces of plastic into the world’s oceans over the next decade.

Fortunately, lawmakers and the cosmetics industry have begun to tackle this issue. Cosmetics producers, including industry giants like Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson, have agreed to phase out microbeads. They are turning, instead, to natural alternatives, such as walnut shells and rice. And representatives in four states – California, Illinois, New York, and Ohio – have introduced bills to bar the use of microbeads within their jurisdictions. These bans have passed unanimously in the former three states, while Ohio’s bill (SB 304), proposed by Senator Mike Skindell (D-Lakewood), awaits a hearing from the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee.

great lakes watersheds
Source: Ohio Department of Natural Resources

While the bans in Illinois and New York, along with the proposed ban in Ohio, represent extremely important steps in the fight to protect the health of Lake Erie, much work remains. The Lake Erie watershed spans five states and Ontario. Because it is the shallowest and most densely populated of the five Great Lakes, Lake Erie is at the greatest risk from this threat. Accordingly, it is essential that Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Ontario, and Pennsylvania follow Illinois and New York’s lead.