CLEVELAND: Tiny bits of plastic are emerging as a threat to the Great Lakes.
Large quantities of round pellets, mainly from health and beauty products, were among the plastic pieces researchers found in 2012 in Lake Erie, along with Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Sherri A. Mason, an associate professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia, led the study.
In fact, some of the Lake Erie samples had more plastics than have been found in ocean samples, she said.
“The levels were astronomical … and that’s troubling,” she said.
The discovery has ramifications for the Great Lakes and for people living around them, she said.
The continuing research is the first look at plastics in the Great Lakes and the second look at plastics in freshwater in the world. Plastics in the oceans have been studied since 1999.
The No. 1 source of the microplastics in the Great Lakes appears to be tiny scrubbing beads added to personal-care products, such as scrubbing facial washes and toothpastes, Mason said.
Two companies, Ohio-based Proctor & Gamble and New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson, have told an advocacy group they will stop using spheres of polyethylene, a type of plastic, in their beauty products by 2017.
In 2012, Mason’s team collected water samples from trawl nets at 21 sites on the three lakes from the rebuilt brig Niagara, the flagship of Oliver Hazard Perry’s American fleet on Lake Erie in the War of 1812. The ship is based in Erie, Pa.
About 90 percent of the almost-microscopic plastics found that summer were from Lake Erie.
Additional samples were collected this summer on Lake Erie, Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario and the adjoining St. Lawrence River — with about 135 samples collected, Mason said.
The results of this year’s sampling won’t be analyzed until December and the full report won’t be completed until next spring, she said.
The sampling was supported by the Los Angeles-based 5 Gyres Institute, the Burning River Foundation in Cleveland and the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant program.
The results surprised Mason’s team, she said. The researchers did not expect to find such concentrations of plastics and had not expected the pieces to be so tiny, she said at a recent conference about Lake Erie held at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
One water sample from Lake Erie contained 1,100 bits of plastic floating in it, a number that shocked researchers, she said in a later telephone interview. The concentrations were equal to 450,000 bits of plastic per square kilometer in eastern Lake Erie, she said.
The pieces of microplastics are generally from one-third of a millimeter to 1 millimeter. That is from 1/64th of an inch to 3/64ths of an inch.
Sixty percent of the microplastics found floating in Lake Erie in the 2012 sampling were the “perfectly spherical balls of plastic,” she said.
Such beads are so tiny that they go from home drains through sewage treatment plants into rivers that empty into Lake Erie and other Great Lakes, Mason said.
Also found in some Lake Erie samples were fly ash and coal ash from coal-burning power plants, she said.
It is unclear how great a threat such plastics pose to the Great Lakes and its ecosystems, Mason said. Much more research will be needed to answer that question, but the issue is seen as an emerging cause for concern.
Fish and aquatic insects might eat the plastic beads, and the bits could be inside fish humans are consuming, Mason said.
There is laboratory evidence that the plastics can be troublesome in the food chain, but it is unclear if that is happening in the Great Lakes, she said.
Removing the plastics from the lake waters is not possible, Mason said.
It is unclear how long it might take the plastics to degrade and whether they are washing ashore on Great Lakes beaches or sinking to the bottom, she said.
They can absorb toxic chemicals in the water and might serve as rafts for tiny microorganisms, including bacteria, that could be dangerous to humans.
The plastics move with lake currents and are likely to travel from the upper three lakes into Lake Erie and then Lake Ontario. They then would flow into the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River.
Research on plastics in the oceans has shown only low levels of microplastics from beauty products, Mason said. At this time, it is unclear why the concentrations are so much greater in the Great Lakes.
Mason said plastics in the water is becoming a whole new area of scientific research.
The United Nations estimates that 80 percent of the plastics found in the oceans originated on land. About half float, half sink.
The 5 Gyres Institute took Mason’s 2012 results to Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. The advocacy group that takes its name from the five gyres — oceanic whirlpools where floating plastic debris gathers around the globe — expected a fight.
But Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson said they are phasing out the polyethylene microbeads and are developing an environmentally friendly alternative. Unilever and the Body Shop have made similar pledges, according to media reports.
Mason is an advocate for keeping all plastics out of the water.
“No level of plastics in the lakes is acceptable,” she said. “The best cure is to find ways to reduce our plastic use. We’re all part of the problem.”
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.