Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution

Mon, 2020-02-24 05:21

PORTLAND, Ore: Tiny bits of broken-down plastic smaller than a
fraction of a grain of rice are turning up everywhere in oceans,
from the water to the guts of fish and the faeces of sea otters and
giant killer whales.
Yet little is known about the effects of these “microplastics”
— onsea creatures or humans.
“It’s such a huge endeavor to know how bad it is,” said Shawn
Larson, curator of conservation research at the Seattle Aquarium.
“We’re just starting to get a finger on the pulse.”
This week, a group of five-dozen microplastics researchers from
major universities, government agencies, tribes, aquariums,
environmental groups and even water sanitation districts across the
US West is gathering in Bremerton, Washington, to tackle the issue.
The goal is to create a mathematical risk assessment for
microplastic pollution in the region similar to predictions used to
game out responses to major natural disasters such as
The largest of these plastic bits are 5 millimeters long, roughly
the size of a kernel of corn, and many are much smallerand
invisible to the naked eye.
They enter the environment in many ways. Some slough off of car
tires and wash into streams — and eventually the ocean — during
rainstorms. Others detach from fleeces and spandex clothing in
washing machines and are mixed in with the soiled water that drains
from the machine. Some come from abandoned fishing gear, and still
more are the result of the eventual breakdown of the millions of
straws, cups, water bottles, plastic bags and other single-use
plastics thrown out each day.
Research into their potential impact on everything from tiny
single-celled organisms to larger mammals like sea otters is just
getting underway.

Because plastic is made from fossil fuels and contains
hydrocarbons, it attracts and absorbs other pollutants in the
water, such as PCBs and pesticides. (File/Shutterstock)

“This is an alarm bell that’s going to ring loud and strong,”
said Stacey Harper, an associate professor at Oregon State
University who helped organize the conference. “We’re first
going to prioritize who it is that we’re concerned about
protecting: what organisms, what endangered species, what regions.
And that will help us hone in … and determine the data we need to
do a risk assessment.”
A study published last year by Portland State University found an
average of 11 micro-plastic pieces per oyster and nine per razor
clam in the samples taken from the Oregon coast. Nearly all were
from microfibers from fleece or other synthetic clothing or from
abandoned fishing gear, said Elize Granek, study co-author.
Scientists at the San Francisco Estuary Institute found significant
amounts of microplastic washing into the San Francisco Bay from
storm runoff over a three-year sampling period that ended last
year. Researchers believe the black, rubbery bits no bigger than a
grain of sand are likely from car tires, said Rebecca Sutton,
senior scientist at the institute. They will present their findings
at the conference.
Those studying the phenomenon are worried about the health of
creatures living in the ocean — but also, possibly, the health of
Some of the concern stems from an unusual twist unique to plastic
pollution. Because plastic is made from fossil fuels and contains
hydrocarbons, it attracts and absorbs other pollutants in the
water, such as PCBs and pesticides, said Andrew Mason, the Pacific
Northwest regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program.
“There’s a lot of research that still needs to be done, but
these plastics have the ability to mine harmful chemicals that are
in the environment. They can accumulate them,” said Mason.
“Everything, as it goes up toward the top, it just gets more and
more and the umbrella gets wider. And who sits at the top of the
food chain? We do. That’s why these researchers are coming
together, because this is a growing problem, and we need to
understand those effects.”
Researchers say bans on plastic bags, Styrofoam carry-out
containers and single-use items like straws and plastic utensils
will help when it comes to the tiniest plastic pollution. Some
jurisdictions have also recently begun taking a closer look at the
smaller plastic bits that have the scientific community so
California lawmakers in 2018 passed legislation that will
ultimately require the state to adopt a method for testing for
microplastics in drinking water and to perform that testing for
four years, with the results reported to the public. The first key
deadline for the law — simply defining what qualifies as a
micro-plastic — is July 1.
And federal lawmakers, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon
Democrat, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican,
last week introduced bipartisan legislation to establish a pilot
research program at the US Environmental Protection Agency to study
how to curb the “crisis” of microplastic pollution.
Larson, the conservationist at the Seattle Aquarium, said a year of
studies at her institution found 200 to 300 microfibers in each
100-liter sample of seawater the aquarium sucks in from the Puget
Sound for its exhibits. Larson, who is chairing a session at
Wednesday’s consortium, said those results are alarming.
“It’s being able to take that information and turn it into
policy and say, ‘Hey, 50 years ago we put everything in paper
bags and wax and glass bottles. Why can’t we do that again?’”
she said.

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Scientists gather to study risk from microplastic pollution