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Tiny micro-plastics huge environmental problem for rivers, ocean, researchers say

This tray has a half-life in water of at least two years. The plastic bag, exposed to sunlight,...
This tray has a half-life in water of at least two years. The plastic bag, exposed to sunlight, has a half-life of more than five years.(Lisa Sorg, Virginia Mercury)
Published: Apr. 11, 2022 at 7:33 AM EDT
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If the plastic food container that contained your lunch today winds up in a river, a local creek, or the Atlantic Ocean, 60 years from now people could find it, reasonably intact. The rest of the container will have degraded into micro-plastics — teeny particles that are visible only under a microscope. Fish or shrimp might have ingested those particles, filling their guts in place of food. People might have unknowingly drunk those plastic particles in water flowing from their taps.

Micro-plastics and their even smaller counterparts, nano-plastics, are a global environmental hazard. They pollute the oceans and rivers harming aquatic life, and potentially animals and humans. Yet these pollutants are understudied and in some cases, poorly understood.

Jack Kurki-Fox, a research associate at N.C. State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, sampled surface water at 15 stream gauges throughout the Neuse River Basin, established by the U.S. Geological Survey. Preliminary data show that 70% of the 6,100 samples taken in the basin were confirmed as containing plastic, Kurki-Fox said during a presentation at the NC Water Resources Research Institute last week.

Kurki-Fox and his colleagues had also collected “macro-plastics” from these waterways. These include tires, bags, beach balls, cups, and bottles. These large items shed over time, creating micro-plastics. Using special analytical equipment, scientists found a filament that looked like cellophane; it came from the lining of a coffee cup.

To illustrate the lengthy lifespans of many plastics, researchers found plastics from a product known as Bakelite in the Neuse River Basin. One of the first plastics, Bakelite went on the market in 1908 and was discontinued in the 1940s.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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