Great Lakes threatened by microplastics

Microplastics are the latest threat to the Great Lakes. The small pieces of plastic range in size, from microscopic to the size of a fingernail and come from facial cleansers, beauty products, even toothpaste.

Lakes Erie has highest concentration of small, microscopic plastic

Microplastics are the latest threat to the Great Lakes.

The small pieces of plastic range in size, from microscopic to the size of a fingernail.

The plastics come from everyday products, such as scrubbing beads in facial cleansers, beauty products, even toothpaste.

For nine months, Shanley McEntee sailed the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes aboard the Sea Dragon, a research ship.

Shanley has been collecting and analyzing water samples from the various bodies of water.

"You bring the trawl up and it's baffling what you find," Shanley said. "We're finding up to handfuls of little microplastics that you couldn't visibly see with your eyes looking over the side of the boat and into the ocean which is almost the most disturbing part because it's the bluest blue I've ever seen."

Shanley said the remnants don't even look like plastic sometimes and that fish and birds are mistaking it for food.

Some scientists say Lake Erie may have the highest concentration of microplastics, mainly because particles float downstream from the upper Great Lakes..

Marcus Eriksen, research director of the 5 Gyres Institute, had spent several years studying microplastics.

When he and his colleagues sampled the water in Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Erie last year,  they found much smaller bits of plastic - about a third of a millimetre in diameter or the size of a grain of sand.

"But there were thousands of them," he told CBC Radio's As It Happens in July 2013. "In fact, I found more in the Great Lakes than in any sample anywhere in the world's oceans."

The highest concentrations were found in Lake Erie.

Saad Jasim, former head of the International Joint Commission in Windsor, Ont., said there are a variety of reasons for the increase.

"With the increase in population there is more sewage discharge, there is more waste water, more of these substances, more chemicals used," he said.

Sewage treatment plants don't remove microplastics because they're just too small. For that same reason, it's almost impossible to get them out of the fresh water once they're in the Great Lakes.

"When it goes into the ecosystem, it stays ... for many years in the ecosystem. So there's impact on fish, impact on drinking water, people that swim. They might be swallowing that, Jasim said.

"Other environmental catastrophes on land, we always find a way of mitigating or being able to clean up and there's just no way to think about doing that right now with a water system," Shanley said.

Researchers have taken their findings to cosmetics companies, like L'oreal, The Body Shop and Johnson and Johnson...

All three have promised to phase out plastic microbeads by 2017.

Scientists say there's no quick fix for this problem, because the responsibility for keeping lakes clean is in the hands of not only manufacturers but also the consumer.


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