NORTH HAVEN — Most people are familiar with the ever-growing number of macroplastics found in the world’s waters, more commonly known as plastic bags, bottles and straws.
But Southern Connecticut State University researchers have turned their attention to a lesser known problem — microplastics.
Microplastics and microbeads are small pieces of plastic and fibers commonly found in cosmetic and facial products, toothpaste and clothing — especially polyester and fleece.
Professor of science education and environmental studies Vincent Breslin and graduate student Anthony Vignola have begun testing the water from North Haven and Meriden’s treatment plants to see how much plastic makes its way through them and into Long Island Sound via the Quinnipiac River.
The two took their first sample at the North Haven Water Pollution Control Facility on Universal Drive, last week.
Breslin has been studying microplastics since the state legislature first considered banning them from certain products in 2015.
The ban, now in place, arose from suspicion that the small pieces of plastic were being eaten by various marine organisms, including fish, in Long Island Sound.
The microbeads can absorb chemicals and other toxins and end up hurting wildlife.
“The microplastics are a particular problem for people as well because we eat the seafood … and some of these things are not safe to eat,” said State Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, who is on the legislature’s Environment Committee. The legislature has since created a Microfiber Pollution Working Group with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and is considering plastic bag bans.
Over the last few years, Breslin has studied the prevalence of microbeads in our coastal waters, testing areas like New Haven and Mystic harbors.
Since the ban, Breslin said the presence of microbeads has declined, but is not gone entirely. Now he’s expanding those studies to look at the sources that allow the microplastics to get into bigger bodies of water.
“There's been some studies that do show that a lot of wastewater treatment plants are pretty effective at removing microplastics (but the) wastewater treatment plants weren't designed to treat microplastics so in a sense they're doing an additional duty here,” Breslin said.
Studies have shown that anywhere from 95 to 99 percent of plastics that come into the plant are removed in the treatment process, Breslin said.
“Even a small percentage results in a potentially larger impact to ecosystems,” he said.‘No running from it’
Breslin said the plant managers have been “absolutely wonderful” in letting him and Vignola take samples for the study.
The two took their first samples this month and plan to return three more times as the seasons change. Back at the lab, the samples go through a multiple-step filtration process to remove organic matter and capture only the microplastics, which are then counted and recorded by colors, shapes and sizes. The whole process could take four to six months.
To avoid using products with microbeads, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection recommends consumers look at their personal care products for either the term “microbeads” itself or “polyethylene” which is a term for plastic.
This microplastics study is being funded by the Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies and the Quinnipiac River Fund, as well as Southern Connecticut State University. An app called “Beat the Microbead” is also available for consumers looking to learn more about their products.
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