Humans may be eating or drinking minute particles of plastic and scientists across the world have begun measuring the amount of those particles.
One group of Utah Valley University researchers, is conducting a study about microplastics found in the local area with Sally Rocks, an assistant professor of chemistry, coordinating the effort.
Microplastics can be found in water, air, soil and in homes, according to scientific researchers. They estimate about 8 million tons of plastics enter waters around the world each year.
UVU’s researchers conducted their studies in and around Utah Lake. Rocks said she had read about research around the world, but had not seen anything published that focused on the Utah area.
“I designed a project where we would investigate the extent of the pollution — how many particles are out there, where they are located around the valley, what is in the air, our water, or at the bottom of the lake,” Rocks said. “We seek to determine the extent of microplastic pollution in Utah Valley and the sources of the pollution. We also seek to understand how microplastics move in our environment. By looking at plastic content in the air as well as the water of Utah Lake, we can determine if plastics are mostly from runoff or are migrating throughout our environment with the wind.”
According to the scientific definition, microplastics are smaller than 5 mm. in size, but UVU’s research team hasn’t found anything that big, Rocks said.
“Most of our things are about 100 microns or less — really small,” she said. “A human hair is about 75 microns. Everything we are finding seems to be problematically small.”
Most other studies use nets to collect their samples, she said. The nets collect the largest of the small particles, leaving the miniscule ones not analyzed.
“Instead of nets, we took jars,” she said. “We had water samples that were so small we would never see them with a net. As a consequence, we are getting a more complete picture, but it makes the analysis challenging.”
In the summer, the team rented a boat, traveled around Utah Lake and collected water samples and sediment samples from 10 different locations.
“We collected all kinds of samples,” Rocks said. “We got to actually go in our backyard and learn something about where we live. We care about the Utah Valley area. We are giving back.”
They also designed atmospheric sampling devices and placed them around the lake, plus on UVU’s campus and on the rooftop of an additional Orem location.
“That is about a year’s worth of sampling,” she said. “We are still working on that.”
To do the study, Rocks called in other UVU experts — Eddy Cadet, whose focus is trace metal analysis, and Gary Naisbitt, who works with forensic science and analysis of small particles. Five undergraduate students were also involved whose fields of study ranged from forensic science and earth science to chemistry.
“The students learn research techniques on the job,” Rocks said. “We are getting the students involved in research really early. It helps them visualize themselves as scientists. It has also been shown as a way to retain students. If them do research they are more likely to complete their degree.”
“It turned out there are a lot of particles out there,” she said.
With the vast number of samples, the research has not yet been completed, nor is it expected in the near future. The analysis includes the type of microplastics, whether they are man-made or natural.
Some of the man-made types are consumer goods and other plastic items that are weathered. Exfoliating facial scrubs have contributed in the past, but have been more closely regulated lately.
With the wind and sun, plastic bags may seem to disintegrate. However, that is not the case.
“They will break off small particles and they appear to go away,” she said. “They don’t go away. They are just very small pieces.”
In many cases, plastics are not the concern in themselves. Rather it is what they attract. They can collect bacteria, chemicals or toxic additives.
“Plastics are not poison,” Rocks said. “They are surface active and sticky. They can attract pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals. It is a question of concentration.”
That concentration is naturally affected by the sources of the plastics themselves.
“They can often be generated through landfills, waste disposal areas, water treatment plants, or municipal runoff,” she said.
“While our project will not eliminate or reduce microplastic pollution, there are well-established ways to lower the microplastics introduced to our environment: reduce plastic use and recycle what you do use,” Rocks said. “Opt for reusable shopping bags and water bottles and try to avoid putting recyclable plastics in the landfill.”
“Our hope is that we can come up with something that is worth disseminating to the public,” she said. “Microplastics are a bigger and bigger issue around the world. They have been found from the Antarctic to the Pyrenees. We hope to be able to share our findings within a year.”