Microplastics found in sediment from the St. Lawrence, a worrisome first
Published Monday, October 13, 2014 6:45PM EDT
McGill professor Anthony Ricciardi and his students search the St. Lawrence River to find and study the invasive species that live below the river’s surface.
On one particular day, they were looking for Asian clams in the sediment of the river, but upon closer inspection they found another invader.
“There were little round spheres that were clearly unnatural and synthetic and we had a suspicion given what we've heard about plastic pollution that these may be plastic microbeads,” Ricciardi explained.
The size of poppy seeds, these beads can be found both in the cosmetics and cleaners that line store shelves.
And as Ricciardi, found out, they're abundant in the river beds too.
“Every sample we looked at had microbeads in it. In some cases they were so abundant that they rivalled what was reported in the literature of the most contaminated marine systems,” he said.
While the sieve you may have in your kitchen drawer is able to strain out the microparticles, most treatment facilities aren’t equipped with the tools to filter the beads out of the water.
That may explain why so many of the beads are ending up in our waterways, where fish and other organisms may be eating them.
Researchers are now inspecting fish stomachs to find out whether that’s the case.
“There's hardly been any studies on the impact of microplastics on living systems especially in fresh water since (the plastics in the river has) only been recognized as an emerging threat in fresh water in the last couple of years,” Ricciardi said.
While the effects of these microbeads aren't known, there's already a movement to ban them.
Several U.S. states have adopted or proposed legislation to end the use of microplastics.
Canada doesn't have a ban and consumers have a role to play there, says one expert.
“If we just enforced labelling, consumers will just pick and choose something that's natural instead of something plastic to put on their face,” explained Sebastien Sauve, an environmental chemist with the Universite de Montreal.
He also pointed out that the more informed consumers are about what’s in the products they buy, the more likely they are to send a message to industries that create them.
“It's also a market that's sensitive to public opinion. But if labelling is forced onto them it will do a lot,” Sauve said.
Already major manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson, Unilever and L’Oreal have agreed to remove them by 2017.
In the meantime, the McGill researchers are continuing their investigation into this new and invasive species, one they hope will eventually be cleansed from our waterways.