At least three of the five Great Lakes “are awash in plastic,” according to Scientific American.
Make that micro plastic, which mostly consists of tiny beads often used as abrasives in personal care products.
The big questions now are what effects these tiny pieces of pollution are having. The plastic itself could be harmful when ingested, but it also adsorbs chemicals, some of them toxic. That means the health of both fish and the humans that eat them could be at risk.
“We don’t know what’s going on yet with the fish or the organisms eating the plastic with these pollutants in the Great Lakes,” said Lorena Rios, a chemist with the University of Wisconsin-Superior. “I plan to study whether the endocrine system of the fish is damaged and whether the problem stops there or moves up the food chain in harmful amounts all the way to humans.”
During 2012, Rios and other researchers found 1,500 to 1.7 million plastic particles per square mile in Lakes Superior, Erie, and Huron. About 85 percent of that was micro plastics, with pieces averaging less than one millimeter in diameter. With more people and industry around it, Erie, not surprisingly, had the highest density.
Rios didn’t find any plastic in the fish samples that she tested, which were all from Superior. But the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has found plastic in Lake Erie yellow perch during ongoing diet-analysis studies, and is sending samples to the chemist for analysis.
Researchers decided to look at the Great Lakes because micro plastics also are commonly found suspended in ocean waters. That marine pollution already has prompted some companies to announce they will phase out micro beads from their products.