Scientists Working to Understand the Deepening Threat of Microplastics to Aquatic Life
by John Thompson
Ever since the discovery in 1997 of “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a pair of floating oceanic garbage dumps on either side of the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas made up almost entirely of microplastics, the world’s scientists have been working to better understand the impact of plastics on our oceans.
Even anecdotally, their negative impact is hard to ignore, from the sperm whale that recently washed up on a beach in Scotland with a stomach full of more than 220 pounds of plastic debris, from nets to plastic cups and bags, to the skeletons of thousands of Pacific seabirds on Midway Atoll showing that were so bloated with plastic that they could no longer even fly.
Thankfully, these scientists — and the agencies that fund them — are beginning to focus their attention on the threat of plastics on aquatic life across the planet.
Western Washington University Professor of Environmental Science Wayne Landis, director of the university’s Institute for Environmental Toxicology, has secured a $320,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to help scientists better understand this threat.
Landis will work with a team of scientists from Oregon State University on the project. His role will be to construct a risk-assessment framework that the field scientists and policymakers will use to understand the risk posed by microplastics (tiny plastic particles) and nanoplastics (even smaller, microscopic particles) on various individual species like Olympia oysters and salmon and to huge complex ecosystems like estuaries and the open ocean.
“What is that risk, how do we compute it, and how do these risk assessments give context to both the scientists in the field and the agencies and policymakers at the state and federal level, when they are tasked with dealing with these issues?” Landis said. “That’s my job, to make that happen. I provide that context.”
The framework is made up of a complex web of mathematical models and equations, each based on individual factors that add to the overall risk threat for that site or species.
For example, when looking at the risk of micro- and nanoplastics to oysters at a specific site, the equation could factor in plastics data from the area, the amount of plastics inside the plankton the oysters eat through filter feeding, water chemistry, air quality, and related measuring sticks that point to the overall status of the local ecosystem.
“All of these things go into understanding the risk in each species or site,” Landis said. “And so much data has to be gathered to make the framework risk-assessment models effective and accurate.”
Thankfully, Landis’ grant is a portion of a larger $3.3 million grant awarded to a research team from Oregon State University that will be working in the field to gather the data Landis needs to feed into his risk-assessment framework.
One of the chief problems facing both Landis and the Oregon State team is that the impact of these types of plastics simply hasn’t been researched widely yet, and many of the sampling techniques to gather data will need to be developed from scratch.
Under the grant, OSU researchers will establish tools and methods to identify micro- and nanoplastics in water, and will seek to determine how they are transported in freshwater, estuarine and marine systems.
“Those are complete unknowns right now,” said Oregon State’s Stacey Harper.
“At the nanoscale, these particles can be ingested by the smallest and the largest organisms in the aquatic world,” said Harper, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Engineering. “For example, when a whale comes up on the beach and dies, we can see all the macroplastic debris that comes out of it, but there is just as much microplastic in that whale and probably just as much, if not more, nanoplastics. We just can’t see them.”
“Getting policymakers to see actual data on how large chunks of plastics get broken down to microscopic plastics and ingested by things like oysters — which are then eaten by us — will be a big first part of that puzzle.”
“While our research at Oregon State University is focused on providing fundamental data on where micro and nanoplastics go in then environment and what they do when they come in contact with living systems, the work that Wayne is doing at Western will make that data informative to risk decision makers across the region,” Harper said. “We are exceptionally lucky to have Wayne on the team.”
Landis said another important aspect of the grant will be the establishment of the Pacific Northwest Consortium on Plastics, which will include government agencies, non-governmental organizations and grassroots efforts that support the reduction of marine pollution.
“Sadly, microplastics are in one of those gray areas where, at least right now, nobody is sure who regulates and oversees them,” he said. “Is it the EPA? Is it the states? Microplastics weren’t even known about when important governing legislation like the Clean Air Act was written.”
“Our hope is that through the work of this grant and the creation of the consortium, we can build a body of knowledge that can be used to establish policy to protect the environment from this threat as we move forward,” he said. “And getting policymakers to see actual data on how large chunks of plastics get broken down to the microscopic level and ingested by things like oysters — which are then eaten by us — will be a big first part of that puzzle.”
Microplastics are an emerging threat, but are the result of the breakdown of oceanic macroplastics (large plastics). See what a different WWU team is doing to unlock the recycling potential of large ocean plastics here.