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Lake Erie packed with plastic
Study finds high levels of material in Lake Erie.
This sample taken from one of the Great Lakes shows some of the plastic found there. / Submitted photo
A group of researchers has found more plastic in water taken from Lake Erie than in samples taken from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The garbage patch has been well-publicized in recent years as a place in the Pacific Ocean the size of Texas that is filled with degrading plastics: bags, pieces of bottle and tiny bits called microplastics.
In the three Great Lakes the researchers sampled — Erie, Huron and Superior — they found plenty of microplastics, which measure less than 1 millimeter in diameter.
And your bathroom could be the origin of some of these tiny pieces. They can come from facial scrubs that include exfoliating beads.
In some products, those little beads are made of plastic, said Sherri Mason, associate professor of chemistry at the State University of New York Fredonia.
They don’t break down. Instead, they go down the drain after you wash, through the wastewater treatment process unscathed and out to the lake, she said.
“Finding the microplastics is much scarier,” Mason said, comparing the microscopic beads to larger pieces of plastic netted during the study. “They could be sitting in the glass of water you have in front of you, and you could drink them and not know it.”
Mason, fellow SUNY Fredonia faculty and students and the 5 Gyres Institute, an organization dedicated to studying plastic pollution in the world’s waters, sailed on the tall ship Niagara last summer to complete the first study of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.
5 Gyres has tested the world’s oceans for plastic pollution, and its leaders felt the Great Lakes — as the largest freshwater system in the world — also should be examined, said Marcus Eriksen, the organization’s executive director. Mason partnered with the institute to do the study, which is expected to be published next year.
They took about seven samples from each of the three lakes studied.
“Relatively speaking, we sampled very little of the overall surface area of the Great Lakes,” Mason said. “Our point was to look (for plastic). It does indicate this is an emerging issue within the Great Lakes.”
Lake Erie has highest plastic counts, study shows
Samples with the highest counts of plastic were found in Lake Erie between Erie, Pa., and Dunkirk, N.Y., on the cusp of the Central and the Eastern basins.
One sample taken in that area showed 600,000 pieces per square kilometer.
“That’s more than twice any sample that I’ve taken on the ocean,” Eriksen said. “We were really surprised at what we found in the eastern part of Lake Erie.”
Another sample taken in the same area showed 450,000 pieces per square kilometer, Mason said.
The team also took samples in the Lake Erie Islands area and found plastic there, she said. The levels of plastic in those samples were not as high as the ones on the cusp of the Central and Eastern basins.
Finding more plastic in Lake Erie than in Huron or Superior wasn’t a surprise.
“The most populated shoreline of the Great Lakes is Lake Erie,” Mason said. “We have the most people. We have the most industry.”
Water also flows down from the Upper Great Lakes into Lake Erie.
Affect on fish and other wildlife
So how does all this plastic affect the fish and other animals in the lakes?
Because this is the first study done on plastic pollution alone, scientists really can’t say for sure, Mason said. But plastic pollution on the ocean provides some possibilities.
Mason points to the stomachs of sea turtles and the albatross, a bird.
“Any time you find one of these animals dead, its gut was literally filled with plastic,” she said. “(Researchers) also know it intertwines with their intestines and affects how nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream.”
Whether those plastics, which animals cannot digest, caused the turtles’ and birds’ deaths, scientists can’t say, she said. Still, that stomach content likely is not beneficial to animals, she said.
Eriksen said microplastics could mimic food, like fish eggs, and could be eaten by organisms that are in turn eaten by other animals, causing the plastic to move up the food chain.
More research could answer some of these questions, and Mason is working on grant funding to continue the study next summer.
More study needed
Mason hopes to sample Lake Michigan and some of the river systems in the Great Lakes.
In the meantime, she and Eriksen said there are simple ways people who live around the lakes can stop contributing to plastic pollution. Recycling and not dumping trash are obvious, but both also encourage people who use facial scrubs to choose products that don’t use microplastic beads.
“It’s appalling we use plastic to intentionally wash it down the drain,” Eriksen said. “One jar of facial scrub has conservatively 5,000 beads of microplastic.
“It’s a single-use plastic culture that we want to see fixed.”
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