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water samples

Julian Kirby, a researcher and plastics campaigner at Friends of the Earth, poses with bottles containing water samples from with River Irwell in the United Kingdom. (Photo: Salford Star)

Bolstering Call for Urgent Global Action, New Study Shows Microplastic Pollution 'Absolutely Everywhere'

"We need to be monitoring our waters now and we need to think, as a country and a world, how we can be reducing our reliance on plastic."

Jessica Corbett

Bolstering global demands to #BreakFreeFromPlastic and end the world's worsening pollution crisis, a new study from the United Kingdom shows that "microplastics are being found absolutely everywhere."

"Plastic is polluting our rivers, lakes, and wetlands in a similar way as pollutants such as so-called 'emerging contaminants' like pharmaceutical waste, personal care products, and pesticides."
—Christian Dunn, Bangor University

"It's no use looking back in 20 years time and saying: 'If only we'd realized just how bad it was,'" lead researcher Christian Dunn of Bangor University in Wales told the Guardian. "We need to be monitoring our waters now and we need to think, as a country and a world, how we can be reducing our reliance on plastic."

Dunn worked with a team of scientists and postgraduate students as well as the environmental group Friends of the Earth to test 10 rivers and lakes, including the Thames River in London and two sites in the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, for microplastics.

Microplastics are tiny particles that have broken away from large plastics such as synthetic clothing or discarded food containers. Much of the concern over microplastic contamination has come from studying ocean pollution, but researchers also have found particles in sea turtles' bellies, many marine mammals, and even human stools.

"It was more than a little startling to discover microplastics were present in even the most remote sites we tested, and quite depressing they were there in some of our country's most iconic locations," Dunn said in a statement. "Plastic is polluting our rivers, lakes, and wetlands in a similar way as pollutants such as so-called 'emerging contaminants' like pharmaceutical waste, personal care products, and pesticides.

Dunn said the findings makes clear that "there needs to be a concerted effort to regularly monitor all our inland waters." He also acknowledged that more research is need on microplastics because "as with all emerging contaminants, we don't yet fully know the dangers they present to wildlife and ecosystems, or even human health, and to what levels they occur in all our water systems."

A report put out last month warned that "the lifecycle impacts of plastic paint an unequivocally toxic picture: plastic threatens human health on a global scale."

Writing for the Guardian on Wednesday, journalist Damian Carrington outlined another study released in February that found "microplastics can harbor harmful microbes."

Research by the National University of Singapore found more than 400 types of bacteria on 275 pieces of microplastic collected from local beaches. They included bugs that cause gastroenteritis and wound infections in humans, as well as those linked to the bleaching of coral reefs.

In light of the recent studies, Julian Kirby, a plastics campaigner at Friends of the Earth, called on his country's MPs to "get behind new legislation, currently before Parliament, that would commit the government to drastically reduce the flow of plastic pollution that's blighting our environment."

Kirby also emphasized that the crisis is a global issue: "Plastic pollution is everywhere—it's been found in our rivers, our highest mountains, and our deepest oceans."

"Countries must seize the opportunity of current global discussions, to develop a holistic response to the plastic health crisis that involves reducing the production, use, and disposal of plastic worldwide."
—David Azoulay, CIEL

Public health and environmental campaigners and experts have welcomed regional efforts, such as the European Union's new rules on single-use plastics, but continue to emphasize that tackling plastic pollution requires international cooperation.

"Both the supply chains and the impacts of plastic cross and re-cross borders, continents, and oceans," David Azoulay of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) said in February. "No country can effectively protect its citizens from those impacts on its own, and no global instrument exists today to fully address the toxic lifecycle of plastics."

"Countries must seize the opportunity of current global discussions," he concluded, "to develop a holistic response to the plastic health crisis that involves reducing the production, use, and disposal of plastic worldwide."


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