WXXI Local Stories
10:50 am
Tue August 26, 2014

Plastic Pollutants Found Throughout Great Lakes Food Chain

Credit wcoes.org

Scientists have been spending the summer studying the impact of micro-plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Sherri Mason, professor of Chemistry and Environmental Sciences at SUNY Fredonia, led the team of researchers that first called attention to pollution from plastic microbeads found in personal care products - everything from facial scrubs to shampoo. 

Mason says these plastic beads are too small to be filtered by sewage plants, and they're making their way into all five of the Great Lakes and the fish and birds that swim in those waters.            

"Over the course of the summer, we've been looking at various fish and bird species-water fowl-to see if the plastics are making their way into the food chain and up the food chain, and we're finding them there," said, Mason. "We've looked at perch, lake trout, musky, water fowl, just a variety, for every trophic level up the food chain. We're seeing the plastics and we're seeing them increase as we head up the food chain.”

The plastic particles are not toxic themselves, but Mason said they come into contact with toxic chemicals in the lakes.  "We know for a fact that as the particles are in the water, they absorb toxic chemicals from the water.  Things like PCBs and PAHs. The Great Lakes have a legacy; they are infamous, I guess, for having these toxic substances."

Several states, including New York, have legislation pending to ban the sale and distribution of products containing microbreads.  But Mason says people don't have to wait for lawmakers to act. There are already natural alternatives to the plastic particles and some cosmetic companies are voluntarily responding by using biodegradable substitutes.