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Concerns over plastic in the ocean are growing in recent years. About 2.41 million tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year, including approximately 15,000 plastic bags per day. However, most of the plastic waste (94 percent) is made up of microplastics—pieces of plastic measuring less than five millimeters across. This summer, three interns at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory decided to focus their research on microplastics, specifically microbeads and microfibers. Mentored by Lamont marine biologist Joaquim Goes, the students Emmerline Ragoonath-De Mattos, Mariela Carrera, and Asya Surphlis uncovered a significant culprit of microplastic pollution that is largely overlooked: the washing of laundry.
Along with the pollution that microplastics cause, they are also entering the food chain as zooplankton and fish accidentally ingest them, and making their way all the way up to human ingestion through consumption of seafood. "We do not know enough about the long-term health effects of microplastics on humans," explained Goes. "What we do know is that they serve as perfect vectors for transport of heavy metals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, as of these compounds readily adsorb onto plastics."
Microplastics - Oceans - Mechanisms - Wastewater - Product
Microplastics are entering oceans through two main mechanisms: by traveling along with wastewater, and as a product of larger plastic being broken down. Wastewater treatment plants currently do not have filtration systems capable of filtering out microplastics.
The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 aimed to reduce microplastic pollution by prohibiting the addition of plastic microbeads in personal care products such as facewash, shampoo, and toothpaste. However, this law did not regulate microbeads for industrial purposes. A common item that falls under the industrial category is laundry detergent. Asya Surphlis, a high school student intern working with Goes to examine the differences in detergents, found that all detergents she tested contained microbeads and microplastic fragments—including store-bought organic detergents, although...
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