Tiny plastic particles are big pollution threat to the Great Lakes

A greater threat to the Great Lakes is the plastic pollution you can't see

It's no big secret that there's a pollution problem in the Great Lakes. We hear about it all the time. We see the plastic containers floating in the water or washed up on shore. However, the bigger threat to the lakes actually comes from the smaller plastic pollution — some of it smaller than you can see with the naked eye.

This was one of the topics discussed at the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), which took place in New Orleans over the last five days.

[ More Geekquinox: Canadian scientists make cool dinosaur discoveries ]

“The massive production of plastic and inadequate disposal has made plastic debris an important and constant pollutant on beaches and in oceans around the world, and the Great Lakes are not an exception,” said Lorena M. Rios Mendoza, Ph.D., according to an ACS press release.

According to the statement, Rios and her team collected samples from Lake Erie that showed it was the smallest particles that were the most abundant. Much of the pollution was in the form of tiny pellets used in plastics manufacturing, with 85% of it being particles of less than two-tenth of an inch in size, and the majority of those particles were so small that they could only be seen through a microscope.

The big problem with these small pollutants is that fish gobble them up, thinking that they're food.

“The main problem with these plastic sizes is its accessibility to freshwater organisms that can be easily confused as natural food and the total surface area for absorption of toxins and pseudo-estrogens increases significantly,” Rios said in the statement.

With the small size of these particles, the amount of surface area can be quite high compared to their volume, which increases their ability to absorb chemicals from the water. When the fish eat the plastic, the chemicals can transfer from the plastic to the fish, and then potentially to whatever, or whoever, eats the fish.

[ More Geekquinox: Major ice storm could be on the way for Ontario ]

The abundance of plastic pollution in the lakes — between 1,500 and 1.7 million particles per square mile — was actually found to be 24% higher than samples Rios' team took from the southern Atlantic Ocean. There are already three different 'Great Garbage Patches' floating around out in the oceans — the North Atlantic Garbage Patch, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the Indian Ocean Garbage Patch — all primarily made up of floating plastic.

The findings of Rios and her team may show that the situation in the Great Lakes is even worse than what's going on in the oceans, and with plastic production on the rise, and plastic currently accounting for 80-90 per cent of ocean pollution, the problem can only get worse from here unless something is done.

(Photo courtesy: Getty)

Geek out with the latest in science and weather.
Follow @ygeekquinox on Twitter!