Edmonton

NAIT project sampling North Saskatchewan River to find microplastics

A research project is analyzing how many microplastics, some invisible to the eye, are accumulating in the North Saskatchewan River.

Project's goal is to quantify and monitor the substance in the North Saskatchewan

Research assistants Jeremiah Bryksa and Patric McGlashan take samples from the North Saskatchewan River to test for microplastics. (Submitted by NAIT)

A research project is analyzing how many microplastics, some invisible to the eye, are accumulating in the North Saskatchewan River.

A research team from NAIT is identifying and monitoring the microplastics found in the water and sediment of the river which winds through Edmonton.

The end goal is to find efficient, low-cost ways to extract microplastics which can be five millimetres or smaller, said Paulo Mussone, lead scientist on the project.

"There's a lack of methods that are universally accepted and we are trying to help science move forward in that domain," Mussone said on CBC's Edmonton AM on Wednesday. Mussone is also NAIT's Applied Bio-Nanotechnology Industrial Research Chair.

Microplastics in the North Saskatchewan River. We talk to the scientist who's leading research into how much those plastics have infiltrated the river. 5:22

Mussone's project started in April 2020 as part of a partnership between NAIT and Inter Pipeline Ltd., which is building a plastics plant on the shores of the river. The North Saskatchewan River is Edmonton's sole water supply, making it fundamental to the city's sustainability. 

So far, NAIT researchers and students, and Inter Pipeline experts, have collected more than 140 freshwater and sediment samples from locations along the river. They've also identified and validated ways to extract microplastics from these samples.

Extracting microplastics has proven difficult as they can be the width of two strands of hair or smaller.

Mussone's goal isn't to analyze water quality or habitat, but rather measure how much of the substance is in the river at all to provide a foundation of information other scientists can work with.

Microplastics are found in water all around the world, Mussone said. And there's growing evidence they're entering our food chain making it important to identify them and learn where they came from, he added.

There's no one main contributor of microplastics, he said. They can be shed by products used everyday like car tires and clothing.

Mussone says the jury's still out on how microplastics affect our drinking water.

"There's extremely little evidence," Mussone said. "So it's going to be a pretty active field of research going forward."

The project is expected to continue until March 2023.

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