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Local View: Everyone's problem -- plastics pollution goes way beyond Great Lakes

We are living in the anthropogenic age, otherwise known as the plastic age. This came into clearer focus with the release of a study published this month on microplastics, or microfibers, in tap water, food, and beer ("Plastic found in most Great Lakes tap water and beer," May 10).

Lorena Rios MendozaThe research was performed by Mary Kosuth, a University of Minnesota School of Public Health masters graduate and a teacher now of environment courses at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis.

As an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Superior whose research has focused on microplastics pollution in the oceans and in the Great Lakes, I was encouraged to see this study capture the media's attention. It increases awareness of macro and micro plastics pollution as a significant environmental issue with unknown consequences for human health.

At the same time, it's important that people understand this is a widespread issue, not one isolated to Great Lakes water. Plastics pollution is impacting nearly all aquatic environments and possibly nearly all water supplies.

It is easy to form misperceptions in the quest to raise awareness. A good example of this is the North Pacific Garbage Patch, a term coined to describe the plastics-pollution problem in the Pacific Ocean. It has caused people to imagine a floating plastic island twice the size of the state of Texas. While the problem is indeed huge, the plastic is dispersed, not floating around like an island.

At this point, we do not know what the hazard and exposure is of microfibers in water, beer, or food that humans are consuming. I am studying microplastics-debris pollution with a focus on adsorption of persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. These POPs can produce cancer and some are endocrine disrupters.

However, since the plastic exists in even smaller sizes, called nanoplastic, the impact is even more unknown due to the lack of analytical instrumentation to determine the potential ecological and human-health consequences. This is a new area of research, and already there are more questions than answers.

Plastics pollution is everyone's problem, not just that of a specific industry. We are living in a plastics-addicted society. We are using plastics without responsibility. Education and communication are the keys to engaging the public about plastics pollution and promoting positive change in habitual usage. Plastics need to be reduced drastically and used responsibly, and the plastics industry needs to take its share of responsibility in managing products and their proper disposal and recycling.

As this issue gains attention, I hope people, businesses, and industries take the opportunity to consider how they can be more responsible in their use of plastics. We need to be careful with the discrepancies between the science and the community in relation to the risk of this issue and, overall, avoid any psychological risk in the minds of people.

Lorena Rios Mendoza is an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and an internationally known researcher on microscopic plastics pollution in oceans and lakes. Her work and the work of other researchers led to laws in Wisconsin and Michigan banning the use of microplastic beads in personal-care products.