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Toxic microplastic hotspots found in Long Island Sound by CT nonprofit advocacy group

Hour - 4/28/2024

Apr. 28—A new study has identified microplastic in the surface waters of Long Island Sound, with the highest concentrations found near the East River in New York and just outside of New London.

Microplastics are microscopic pieces shed by all plastic material, including synthetic textile clothes and food packaging. They're ubiquitous, having been found in land and sea life, headwaters, human bodies and the atmosphere. Microplastics have unclear effects on human health, but emerging evidence suggests that they can lodge in blood vessels, causing heart attack or stroke.

"We found our primary hotspots in narrow zones," said study author Rachael Miller. "At the narrowest part at the western edge ... lots of traffic, lots of people, not a lot of water."

Miller said that in both of the high concentration areas identified, there was a lot of moving water from tides and currents. They also were high boat traffic areas, close to major rivers.

According to the study, scientist found that over half of the microplastics in their samples were synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon. Polypropylene fragments and unidentifiable plastic fragments made up about a quarter of the microplastics.

The study was conducted as part of a broader survey of microplastic pollution in the Hudson River watershed that was trying to determine the abundance and location of microplastics. Miller said studies like this were important for understanding the problem of microplastic pollution and preventing it from getting into the potable watershed, and coastal waters.

She said that her research nonprofit, the Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean, was in the business of figuring out how to prevent plastic pollution and other human-sourced marine debris, from ending up at sea.

"We acknowledge that this problem of marine debris is generated by humans," said Miller. "And that the land-sea interface is where the vast majority of it is generated, and where we believe the most efficient and cost-effective solutions can come."

Miller said that an important takeaway from the study was that so many of the microplastics were fibers. She said that the only other microparticle they found in such high abundance were cotton microfibers and that her data pointed to multiple scattered sources of microplastic and microfiber pollution.

"If the textile pollution problem is based on multiple diffuse sources ... then collectively we have information for the textile industry to make our clothes more resilient, period," Miller said. "Or to make them out of materials that are bio-benign so that in the event they are lost in our waterways they have less potential to cause harm."

In a prior study, Miller's team had identified microfiber and microplastic pollution all the way to the headwaters of the Hudson River. She thinks it's possible that microfibers end up in the watershed from both washing machine wastewater and airborne dryer lint.

She also suspects some of the plastic fragments were derived from combined sewage overflow events because she had seen similar fragments on the Hudson after major storms.

Kathrine Owens, a professor who studies plastic pollution in the Connecticut River, said scientists had traditionally understood microplastics to be broken down fragments of larger plastics but that recent work had shown that paint, laundry wastewater and boat epoxy also create microplastics. The origins of microplastics can be "extraordinarily complex" she said.

"I think one of the challenges of advocating for better policy on microplastics is that they are not visible to the naked eye. It can be difficult to rally support for something when from the beach, boat, or ferry, the waters of the sound seem to be the same," Owens wrote in an email. "That's why the work of the Rozalia Project is so important — because they're cataloging how these materials are accumulating"

Brian Walker a biology professor at Fairfield University said the study's findings weren't "earth shattering" but that it's still important research.

"They're measuring stuff you can't see," said Walker. "We see pictures of huge rafts in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but they don't register as affecting your life so much. Now we have documentation, a study, where these microplastics are right here."

Walker has researched the impact of ingested microplastics on marine birds, and penguins in particular. He said that microplastics can react with toxic chemicals like pesticides in storm runoff. When an animal accidentally eats the microplastic, they also consume whatever pesticide, toxin or biofilm that has attached to it.

"It's not necessarily the microplastic itself that causes the problem," said Walker. "It's the delivery mechanism for other things to come in which can be a significant issue."

Walker said he would love to see follow up studies examining microplastics in the waterways near manufacturing centers, like Bridgeport. He said he would be curious to know whether the fragments seen in Long Island Sound matched the fragments produced by manufacturers of plastic goods.

Work like this could help protect public health if locations where microplastic pollution occurred is regularly checked, he said.

"Just like we do with red tides when we know there's harmful algae in the water we close off those areas," said Walker. "It would certainly be a useful metric to know where you don't want to swim or buy oysters."

Miller cautioned against drawing any specific conclusions about the stability of the hotspots her study detected, saying what she caught was a "snapshot in time." Much more sampling would need to be done, across a broader cross section of the Sound, to know how microplastics move and where they collect, she said.

She said a reasonable hypothesis would be that high-traffic areas and rivers create zones of high microplastic concentration.

"It would be pretty fascinating to do repeat, high-volume testing," said Miller. "You go back and collect data sets ... then you can really learn if a place is experiencing constant presence of microplastic."

She said studies like that were the first step to doing something about it.

"As soon as you can collect data sets over places, there's opportunities for action," said Miller.

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