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New search effort targets microplastics in Lake Superior

Lorena Rios Mendoza, assistant professor of chemistry at UWS, describes in early 2015 the apparatus she uses in her lab to remove and concentrate the toxic compounds found in plastic microbeads in order to identify them and determine their concentrations. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

A team of Northland researchers and volunteers will search the open water and beaches of Lake Superior on Saturday looking for tiny microplastic pollution, part of a Great Lakes-wide effort by scientists and activists.

It's being billed as the largest single-day effort ever to document the presence of microplastics, tiny pieces of pollution originating from personal care and other consumer products, even clothing and carpeting.

All-female groups of scientists from each Great Lake will be conducting the research along with citizen volunteers.

Past research found the tiny plastic beads across the lakes, leading to action by state legislatures and the U.S. Congress to pass laws that will eventually ban plastic beads from consumer products like facial scrubs and shampoos.

Now, researchers and activists want to see what other types of tiny plastics might be polluting the lakes and moving into the food chain from small organisms up to the fish that people eat.

It's also suspected that the tiny plastic pollution pieces may help carry toxic chemicals into the ecosystem and help transfer the toxins to fish and on to people.

In the Twin Ports, professor Lorena Rios Mendoza, a chemist at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and among the first scientists to document the microplastics problem in the Great Lakes, will lead a team of researchers on Lake Superior that includes Erika Washburn, director of the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve, and professor Shawna Weaver of the College of St. Scholastica. Other citizen volunteers in Duluth and Superior will take shoreline samples of water and sediment to check for plastics.

While the federal Microbead Free Waters Act that passed in December will ban microbeads in many products starting next year, many manufacturers already are moving to eliminate them, often using natural, biodegradable ingredients instead. Supporters say consumers should continue to avoid all products that list polyethylene and polypropylene as ingredients.

But Rios Mendoza said plastics will continue to get into the lakes and into fish. Most recently she has discovered high levels of tiny plastic fibers in fish stomachs — fibers apparently from synthetic clothes (such as fleece) and carpeting that make their way into sewage systems, probably from washing machines, but which aren't removed by the traditional sewage treatment process.

"I'm surprised by how much we are finding in fish stomachs,'' she told the News Tribune. "It's not just the beads. Our goal with this event is that more people are aware of this problem. It's not just microbeads ... it's all of the plastics we use. We need to be more responsible with plastic. We need to find some alternatives."

Jennifer Pate of the group eXXpedition Great Lakes, which organized today's event, said the group has "spent the past two years sailing the Atlantic Ocean, across the mouth of the Amazon River, along the coast of Norway and through the Caribbean Sea collecting samples of plastic and toxic pollution."

"We know they are out there,'' she said in announcing today's Great Lakes effort. "We were alarmed by the high levels of persistent organic pollutants in our world's waterways, the effects they could have on our bodies and above all the fact that these issues go unseen, and are rarely talked about. ... In parts of the Great Lakes we have a higher density of microplastics than in any of the oceans."

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