Microplastics Research on Cayuga Lake
Take a quick look around you. Count the number of things that are made of plastic or has a plastic component. Chances are, you would find at least 10 items. Plastic is all around us, long after we no longer use it. In making, using, and discarding plastics, we generate a lot of microplastics. How much microplastics are there in our lake and should we be concerned?
Ecotoxicologist, Dr. Susan Allen-Gil, at Ithaca College and Lab Director, Dr. Jose Lozano, at the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility are currently leading efforts to study microplastics in Cayuga Lake. They want to know about the type, location, and density of microplastics. While the microbeads federal ban is a step in the right direction, there are other sources of microplastics we need to be aware of. There is much that an everyday person can do to reduce overall plastics pollution in our environment. The video below provides insights into the collection and lab processes as it is not easy to tell microplastics apart from other debris.
Microplastics are about the size of a grain of rice or even smaller. Nurdles are the raw materials for making larger plastic items and they tend to leak out into the environment during the transportation and manufacturing process. Manufactured small plastics are found in exfoliants within toothpastes or cleansers. Nurdles and cosmetic product exfoliants are examples of primary microplastics. Secondary microplastics come from larger plastic products that broke down into smaller pieces. The durability and flexibility of plastics are the reasons why they are so prevalent in a variety of consumer products, from clothing to electronics to car tires. However, the durability of plastics means that they persist in the environment long after they have been discarded or even when broken down into smaller particles.
Microplastics are so small they slip through water filtration systems and end up in our waterways. Their size also means that they enter the food chain, eaten by plankton, shellfish, fish, and top predators, including humans. Microplastics might be expected to pass through the digestive system as unnatural fiber. However, researchers have found that microplastics persisted in shellfish six weeks after they were moved to clean water. Other laboratory experiments on plankton, shellfish, and crabs show that these animals ate less of their natural food when they consume microplastics. Not having enough food means that they do not have enough energy, which may lead to lower immune response, less growth, and fewer offspring.
The persistence of microplastics in organisms is cause for concern because of the potential to cause harm. Microplastics may cause physical damage such as particles jabbing and rubbing against organ walls. Microplastics could also leach out the hazardous chemicals added to them during production as well as chemicals in the environment that are attracted to their surface. Some of these chemicals are hormone-disrupting bisphenol A (BPA) and pesticides, both types that have been known to affect immune function and hamper growth and reproduction. Recently, microplastics have been detected in human stools and farm soils. More research is being done to understand how microplastics might affect people.
Professor, Environmental Studies and Science, Ithaca College
Last updated January 12, 2021