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ON THE SCENE: Scientists alarmed by microplastics in local waterways

Lake Champlain, looking toward Vermont from the hamlet of Essex in New York (Provided photo — Andy Flynn)

Plastics do not just end up in the oceans and littering our roadsides; they also end up in our Adirondack lakes and rivers, the fish we catch and eat, and, to an increasing degree, in the air we breathe.

To paraphrase Apollo 13 astronauts, “Adirondackers, we’ve got a problem.” Since 2012, Dr. Danielle Garneau, based at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Center for Earth and Environmental Sciences, and her students have been researching the levels, types and sources of an insidious form of plastic that’s increasingly polluting the great Adirondack catch-basin, Lake Champlain. Microplastics, beads, shards and fibers 5 millimeters or less can increasingly be found in our waterways, the air we breathe and the outflows of our municipal wastewater treatment plants. In short, our natural environment, fantastic as it is, is not as pure as we like to believe it is.

The good news is that there are steps we can take locally. Still, some will require working to put back in stricter environmental protection laws, including many of the 125 that have been diminished or eliminated by EPA and other federal administrative actions over the past three-and-a-half years.

In 1967, world plastic production was approximately 25 million tons. By 2018, it shot past 380 million tons. About half reaches landfills, though, in a high percentage of those locations, it’s by no means secure. Indeed, worldwide, landfills are a leading source of plastics entering our waterways.

Microplastics are the smallest bits of plastic. They come in two basic types, primary and secondary. Primary are those microplastics that were designed to be tiny, such as the little beads that used to be incorporated in our exfoliants and toothpaste, fibers used in synthetic textiles such as nylon, tennis balls, and wet wipes, and products such as laundry pods, cigarette butts, glitter and many tea bags.

Secondary are microplastics resulting from the breakdown of larger products such as plastic bags, bottles and fishing nets. Sunlight, wave action, being beaten up by rocks and waterfalls and thrashed our washing machines and driers cause shredding of the plastics. For example, the lint that comes out of your drier contains microplastics that have been torn from such items as fleece clothing, nylon, undergarments, and other items containing plastic or manufactured from plastics.

A few years ago, the positive news was that public pressure resulted in the passing of laws to stop the incorporation of microbeads in toothpaste. However, many have already entered our waterways and are still entering Lake Champlain, where fish and other creatures ingest them.

Garneau and her students characterize the microplastics they find by type, color, polymer type, size and density. Examples of type are fragments, pellet/bead, film and foam. Polymer type includes polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene, and density is heavier or lighter.

“Microfibers are gaining attention and has become the focus of my research as I think it is for everyone,” said Garneau during an Oct. 20 Whallonsburg Grange Virtual Lyceum talk. “It’s important to determine what kind of plastic it is, it’s polymer type, as that determines where it floats in the water column, if it will sink to the bottom, and what organism might be exposed to it.”

Garneau said many local microfiber sources include tire wear and marine debris, which includes boating and fishing materials, textiles and latex paint. Wastewater treatment plants are a known pathway for latex paint and plastics from cosmetics and clothing entering the waterways. She gave credit to SUNY Fredonia professor Dr. Sherri Mason for her pioneering work researching how microplastics enter the Great Lakes and as a mentor and the person who inspired and taught her how to evaluate the outflows of wastewater treatment plants.

Garneau partners with the Lake Champlain Research Institute by examining their zooplankton surveys conducted on a nearly monthly basis across the lake. While they were looking for invasive species, lake turnover and whatnot, they discovered microfibers and microplastics in their nets, most especially rubber-based nurdles. Their findings are useful for Garneau’s work. Her challenge is to discover where the microplastics they found are coming from and why the mix of microplastic types fluctuates.

Garneau doesn’t have the resources to evaluate every river pouring into Lake Champlain, so she started with the Plattsburgh wastewater treatment plant (Saranac River), expanding to include Burlington (Winooski River), St. Albans (Stevens Brook), Ticonderoga (La Cute River), and Vergennes (Otter Creek). What she learned was that no two sites reflect the same mix. Overall, fibers (59%) and fragments (37%) were the most abundant, though, in St. Albans, Styrofoam was by far the lead microplastic pollutant. Her team also learned that 85,000 microplastics are entering the Lake Champlain every day from just these five locations.

“Imagine the contributions if we could evaluate all the wastewater plants within the Champlain Basin,” said Garneau.

Over 50 other rivers also lead directly into the lake that were not accounted for, nor the flows from many upstream wastewater plants such as Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and the several surrounding Lake George. Thus, the 85,000 microplastics entering the lake from five wastewater plants represent a sliver of the lake’s total volume. What’s alarming scientists is that studies show it’s raining microplastic fibers, as illustrated by research conducted in a remote section of the Pyrenees.

Over in Vermont, the Rozalia Project has been researching the amount of plastic fibers going into the environment from our laundry wastewater and the lint coming out of people’s driers. It turns out to be quite a bit. In other words, not only are we consuming microplastics through the fish and crustaceans we eat, increasing through the air we breathe. That said, local fish do ingest microplastics, in particular fibers. The fish containing the most plastic fibers are lake trout, bowfins, Atlantic salmon, northern pike, largemouth bass and rock bass. Smallmouth bass contain the highest percent of plastic fragments.

“There are studies out there that show the amount of microplastics we are ingesting may pale in comparison to the amount to the amount that we may be inhaling in the dust in our own home,” said Garneau. “A lot of environmental toxicologists are concerned about what this exposure means to us.”

Garneau said we are not powerless, citing single-use plastic bags being banned in New York because of public pressure. Other steps we can take are to push for legislation that supports stricter filtration systems on wastewater plants and eliminates all single-use plastics. At home, we can install HEPA air purifier systems or free-standing room units, purchase front loading washers as they spin off less lint, install and often clean filters on driers vents, and purchase cotton and wools instead of synthetics. Also, we can take up catch and release fishing and consider making donations to SUNY Plattsburgh’s Center for Earth and Environmental Sciences.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)