The pollution and plastic in our planet’s oceans have been highly publicized, and most well-informed grade school students can describe the horror of what’s come to be known as the “great Pacific garbage patch.”
But emerging research has discovered a new threat that plastic poses to our water systems—one that’s showing up in increasing concentrations in our Great Lakes.
According to Sherri Mason, an associate chemistry professor at the State University of New York’s College at Fredonia, N.Y., small bits of plastic used in the manufacturing of products like toothpaste and cosmetic creams are contributing to the pollution of our lakes.
In a yet-to-be-published study submitted to a marine pollution journal, Mason conducted research on the Great Lakes with the help of the 5 Gyres Institute. Mark Erikson, the study’s lead author and executive director of the institute, told The Windsor Star, “There could easily be billions of microplastic particles in the Great Lakes system.”
The plastic contaminants show up in the form of “microbeads,” used to give a creamy feel to cosmetics and lotions. These microbeads, which appear as tiny spheres under a microscope, are particularly dangerous to lake ecosystems, because they’re the same size and colour as many fish eggs, meaning they can absorb harmful chemicals from the water and introduce them into the food chain when consumed.
So far, the highest concentrations of plastic microbeads, which range from 600 plastic particles per square kilometre to 460,000 per square kilometre, have shown up in Lake Erie, but more research is planned for Lake Ontario and Lake Michigan.
To avoid products containing this harmful form of plastic, look for the terms “microbeads” or “micro abrasives,” as well as “polypropylene” or “polyethylene.” For a water-friendly alternative, choose products that use natural abrasives, which can include apricot seeds, almonds, or cocoa beans.