In the midst of the ongoing environmental crisis, the maintaining of our natural bodies of water is of key importance to mankind’s future. Unfortunately, over the past few years we have begun to realize just how many harmful human activities have decreased the quality of our water, as well as the lifeforms that occupy it. From our drinking water to the fish we eat, our actions have a massive impact on our health.
Recently, a new frightening find was discovered involving the continued pollution of our natural bodies of fresh water. A chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia, Dr. Sherri Mason, has been credited with the discovery that a plague of microplastics is now contaminating the ecosystem of the Great Lakes. These microplastics consist of small plastic particles, microbeads and fibers that tend to be under the size of a single millimeter. Although they may be small, the sheer amount of contamination from these microplastics is alarming.
While her original study in 2011 was alarming enough, Dr. Mason’s revamped study in 2013 showed that the amount of microplastics contaminating the Great Lakes was increasing. Dr. Mason was shocked, calling the numbers “staggering.” Additional studies investigating the prevalence of microplastics within the Great Lakes’ ecosystem only confirmed the initial findings of Dr. Mason’s studies.
Without context, it can be difficult to understand the threat that this presents to us on an everyday basis. In her studies, Dr. Mason has shown that these microplastics are being found in troubling numbers inside the animals that make up the ecosystem of the Great Lakes. The bigger the organism, the more infected by the microplastics they end up being. This contamination leads to human beings consuming these microplastics when they eat fish fished and harvested from the Great Lakes. Commenting on the issue, Dr. Mason proclaimed “we can now establish that plastic is making its way into the food chain.”
Nearly every citizen is likely to understand the threat of plastics to animals in the environment, but many would be alarmed to find that it is now becoming a regular and harmful part of our own eating habits. With a large portion of the U.S. fish market gaining its product from the Great Lakes, this crisis is wide reaching. This unnatural disruption in the food chain has the potential to create real health hazards.
These microplastics are overtaking the Great Lakes due to the high concentration of litter, including products such as shopping bags, bottle caps, flip flops, derelict fishing nets, and even unexpected objects such as pacifiers. Fabrics and backwash from washing machines are also causing an increase in the pollutants that lead to an increase in microplastics within the Great Lakes’ ecosystem.
In addition to simplistic littering, there are many other human practices that are leading to this crisis. Microplastics can find their way into the lakes and other water systems through wind, storm runoffs, boats, and wastewater treatment plants. Additionally, personal care products have been found to contain a large concentration per volume of microbeads and other elements that lend to the microplastics contamination of water bodies.
Lake Erie, located next to Buffalo, NY has been found to hold the highest concentration of microplastics. In one study, the lake was found to contain roughly 463,423 of microplastics per kilometers squared. While Erie might have the highest concentration, the environmental hazard has greatly affected each and every one of the Great Lakes. Researchers have noticed such a massive amount of microplastics in each area that they found it felt similar to a spill of material, in that it was all very sudden and explosive.
Thankfully, some states have started taking action towards reducing the concentration of microplastics in the Great Lake areas. Illinois was the first to take serious action when they banned the use of microbeads in personal care products in June 2014. These microbeads are one of the main attributing factors to the increase in pollution, so the quicker states surrounding the Great Lakes ban them, the better.
The banning of microbeads in Illinois has caused personal care products around the United States to take serious notice. Many companies are now developing products that can work as a more efficient and biodegradable alternative to microbeads. Other companies, on the other hand, are instead focusing their efforts on making microbeads themselves biodegradable. Metabolix and Honeywell corporations were among the first personal care product lines to announce a partnered attempt at achieving this solution.
While these initial steps are comforting, many larger steps must be taken in order to maintain the water and wildlife quality of the Great Lakes. These lakes are a national asset of utmost importance and provide the drinking water for numerous U.S. states. Keeping them in top condition should be considered a top priority for governments on both the state and federal level.
Posted by Mark Contorno