New study finds microplastics in waterways around Pennsylvania

Environment

A PennEnvironment study released today found microplastics in every body of water researchers tested around Pennsylvania. A growing area of research, microplastics have been found in both wildlife and humans.

PennEnvironment researchers and volunteers collected more than 300 water samples from over 50 lakes, rivers and streams around the state, including several in Central Pennsylvania such as the Susquehanna River in Dauphin County, the Conestoga River in Lancaster County, and Codorus Creek in York County.

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are less than 5 millimeters long. Some plastics are produced this size, while others eventually break down into these minuscule bits.

“Plastics are not going to decompose ever. They’ll just break down into smaller and smaller pieces,” says Jodi Sulpizio, natural resources educator for Penn State Extension and coordinator of the Master Watershed Steward Program in York.

These small pieces of plastic come in a handful of different varieties: microfibers come from clothing and textiles, micro fragments come from harder plastics, microfilm comes from plastic bags and other flexible packaging, and microbeads mostly come from cosmetic products.

PennEnvironment found microfibers at every site tested for this study. Microfragments were found at about 87% of the tested sites and microfilm at about 94% of the sites. Microbeads were seen at only one of the locations tested (the Delaware River Canal in Bucks County).

Microplastics are all over the place, including in our bodies. “It’s in our air, so we breathe it. It’s in our food, so we eat it. It’s in our water, so we drink it. It’s been found in rain, dust, it’s been found in table salt, tap water, bottled water,” Faran Savitz, conservation associate at PennEnvironment and author of the new report, said in a press conference on Wednesday.

Savitz cites a study commissioned by WWF that found that the amount of microplastics humans ingest in one week weighs the equivalent of a credit card.

Animals ingest microplastics, as well. Sulpizio notes that plastics have been found in the stomachs of birds, for example.

Microplastics also pose a potential threat because they can accumulate other pollutants that are present in the environment, David Velinsky, vice president for academy science at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, explained in the news conference.

The plastics can attract toxins like DDT and PCBs, which animals ingest along with microplastics. “This bioaccumulates [and] makes the contaminants move up the food chain,” says Velinsky.

While the widespread presence of microplastics is becoming increasingly apparent, the exact effects of these minute materials are still being researched.

“We started to live this throwaway lifestyle, and it’s coming back to us through the environment,” says Sulpizio. She says one way to mitigate microplastic pollution is to make personal choices to limit the consumption of single-use plastics.

“We can think ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ but I think another one to add in there is ‘refuse,'” Sulpizio says. Individuals can choose not to use straws or not to purchase the cucumber covered in shrink wrap at the grocery store.

Synthetic clothing also releases microplastic into the environment when it’s washed, so Sulpizio suggests acquiring a filter for the washing machine to help catch some of the microfibers.

Sulpizio and Savitz also encourage regulatory agencies such as local, state and federal governments to enact policies addressing plastic pollution and the production of single-use plastics. The PennEnvironment report provides several specific recommendations.

“The results of this study should set off alarms for all Pennsylvanians who love our state’s rivers and streams. The staggering amount of microplastics we found likely means that no river, lake or stream is safe from this increasingly common contaminant,” says Savitz.

PennEnvironment will be holding a “Microplastics in PA’s Local Waterways” webinar on Thursday, March 4, at 6 p.m. Those interested in attending can register here.

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