Microplastics in my microbrew?
ALPENA — Pollution from plastic has become a growing environmental concern and, in a state like Michigan, the threat of plastics contaminating one of the greatest natural resources — freshwater — has become an alarming problem as studies discover microplastics in fish, tap water, and according to a recent study, even locally made craft beers.
Microplastics come from a variety of sources such as plastic bottles, packaging, fibers from synthetic clothing and diapers, plastic bags, and other plastics that are discarded. Microplastics are anything smaller than 5 millimeters and are caused by the breakdown of larger plastics and debris that can get into the atmosphere from spillage and deposition or through wastewater treatment plants, according to a 2016 study by the United States Geological Survey.
Microplastics can contaminate local water sources and eventually make their way into the Great Lakes.
The 2016 USGS study looked at 107 samples taken from “29 Great Lakes tributaries in six states under different land covers, wastewater effluent contributions, population densities, and hydrologic conditions” and plastics were found in every sample taken.
Once in the water, microplastics can be ingested by wildlife, which can cause digestive and reproductive issues and even death. If the wildlife ingests the plastics, the contaminant enters the food chain and can potentially cause harm to humans.
“I’m sure the wildlife is being affected by this,” Heather Rawlings from the Alpena Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office said. “It’s getting eaten and getting into the food chain. There is no doubt.”
U.S. HAS THE MOST PLASTIC
A study published this spring by the Public Library of Science’s journal, PLOS ONE, tested the presence of anthropogenic debris (manmade materials such as plastics) in global tap water samples (including a sample from Alpena), salt, and beer made from water in the Great Lakes. Mary Kosuth, a graduate of University of Minnesota School of Public Health, led the study, along with Sherri Mason and Elizabeth Wattenberg.
In the study, samples from globally-sourced tap water, including a sample from Alpena, were tested. Researchers also tested 12 unnamed craft beers made from water in each of the Great Lakes, including nine 12-ounce aluminum cans of beer bought in Alpena.
Representatives of Austin Brothers Beer Co. declined to comment for this story.
The study focused on the amount of synthetic debris found in the three sources and how much humans are potentially ingesting. It cited the many reasons plastics can be harmful if consumed, including its ability to absorb chemicals, bacteria, and metals, all of which can be detrimental to a person’s health. The USGS also states that microplastics can potentially contain additives such as flame retardants and antimicrobials that have been associated with cancer and endocrine disruption in humans.
Kosuth’s study found the presence of synthetic debris in 81 percent of the tap water samples tested. Samples taken from the United States had the highest mean for any country at 9.24 particles per liter, compared to England, which had a mean of 7.73 particles per liter. Of the total particles found, 98.3 percent were considered fibers which measured between 0.10 to 5.0 millimeters in length.
Anthropogenic debris was found in all 12 brands of beer, with 98.4 percent classified as fibers that were between 0.1 to 5 millimeters in length. The beers had a mean of 4.05 particles per liter, with a mean of 1.33 particles per liter in the beer sample purchased from Alpena.
The beers with the highest amounts of debris came from Lake Michigan, with one of the samples having a mean of 14.3 particles per liter, and Lake Ontario, with a sample that was 8 particles per liter.
“Fibers fall under the category of microplastics,” said Mary Kosuth, lead researcher of the study.
Kosuth said most of these come from textiles, and they are lightweight enough to become airborne, which has made them ubiquitous.
Kosuth said they are showing up even in tap water, where they shouldn’t because of the filtration.
“There is no reason these particles should get into the tap water,” she said.
However, the presence in the water samples in Kosuth’s study shows they are, in fact, present and a major problem for the Great Lakes.
5,800 PARTICLES INGESTED PER YEAR
To put this into perspective, the study gave an estimate on the amount of microplastics a person could potentially ingest in a year, based on averages found in the study. Based on Kosuth’s findings in tap water and the daily recommended beverage intake from the National Academy of Medicine, a woman could ingest up to 4,400 particles each year if her daily beverage intake comes from tap sources.
Men could potentially drink more than 5,800 particles in a year.
The study also estimates how much a person might ingest through beer annually. Based upon the average number of particles found in the beers, if a person drinks one 12-ounce beer a day, they could potentially be ingesting 520 particles annually or in some cases up to 1,800 particles, depending on what brand they are drinking.
The study concludes with a discussion on the concerning amount of synthetic debris people are consuming, especially in tap water. Sources such as beer can be removed from a person’s diet, but water is essential. If microplastics are found in the major water sources for the state, the contaminants are harming the state’s greatest resource and about 20 percent of the world’s freshwater supply, researchers said.
Steve Corsi, a researcher for the USGS, said it has been difficult to pinpoint the source of the fibers, and the field of microplastics research is still in its infancy.
Corsi said the fibers could come from a variety of sources, such as lint from household dryers that vent into the atmosphere. The wind can make them airborne and rainfall can wash them into streams. The fibers are small enough that they may also remain in water even after going through wastewater treatment plants. Fibers could also potentially be in the sludge from treatment plants that are used as fertilizers later.
According to Corsi, a lot more work and research needs to be done in order to understand the problem.
‘WE SHOULD BE OPTIMISTIC’
There has been some effort to contain plastics pollution in the Great Lakes, such as the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which banned the manufacturing of items that contain microbeads such as face and body washes and some toothpastes. The ban did not take effect until January 2018.
Locally, Alpena has a variety of organizations and community members working to address plastics pollution on a local level. Alpena is home to the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which frequently puts on events in partnership with the schools and community to help educate the public about the importance of reducing plastic waste to save the Great Lakes.
In March, the Sanctuary held a field trip for students from Lincoln Elementary Schools and All Saints Catholic School to help teach children about plastics in the lakes.
“This is a combined effort,” Sanctuary Education Coordinator Sarah Waters said at the event. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary got together to offer this program to these schools through the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative. Both Lincoln and All Saints have multiple teachers doing projects.”
The network coordinator for the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, Meag Schwartz, also pointed to a local teacher at Ella White Elementary School as another active community member trying to educate the public on the microplastics problem.
“Ella White Elementary’s fifth grade teacher, Bob Thomson, has been working with community partners through the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (NEMIGLSI) to research microplastics in the Thunder Bay watershed and Lake Huron,” Schwartz said in an email to the News. “His students have become advocates for eliminating single-use plastics, like straws, from local restaurants. Thomson plans to continue this research with NEMIGLSI this school year.”
Thomson also had his class create its own video on YouTube highlighting facts and tips on how to decrease microplastics.
In the video, Thomson discusses some of his goals with the work he is doing in the schools and in the community in regards to the environmental issues from plastics.
“I think one of the most important things we can do is educate people on how to dispose of single-use plastics,” Thomson says in the video, “how to change their behavior about single-use plastics, how to use a plastic more than once…”
Thomson also said that, this fall, his class will take samples from beaches to determine how much plastic is found in the sand, which he says greatly contributes to the presence of microplastics in water sources.
As for approaching a solution to the problem, Kosuth relayed an analogy a colleague had given her. She said that if you go home to find your sink turned on, flooding the house, you don’t try to mop up the mess with the tap still on. You turn the tap off first.
“We should be optimistic,” she said. “It is not insurmountable.”
Kaitlin Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 358-5693.