plastic pollution in water

By Marcia Wolf Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

When I was an undergraduate in college, I had to take a lot of biological classes for my degree in Biology.  I had pretty much taken them all and ended up taking microbiology because I needed more credits.  It’s not something I had an existing particular interest in.  For me it was deer, elk, horses, bears, wolverines (our high school mascot!), birds and different types of habitat, plants, especially trees, and how to restore habitats for wildlife, or reclaim them after human disturbance.  Well, after the first microbiology exam, the professor announces in class that when grading on a curve he would have to give everyone in the class D’s and F’s because my score was so high.  How embarrassing!  So he took my score out of the curve and everyone else survived.  How I could have such a high score on something I had no particular interest in was beyond my imagination.  Later, he had me work as a teaching assistant (TA) in the microbiology laboratory classes—with other students.  That was unusual, as TA’s are usually graduate students.  I also worked on a research project for the professor as well.  The study was trying to determine the effect of a regional fern extract on the cancerous type growth of yeast cells.  But sitting for hundreds of hours above a microscope counting different types of cell division on yeast cells convinced me that job wasn’t something I wanted to do.  Not to mention that during laboratories I watched students fail to use aseptic techniques after spilling a pathogenic bacteria culture all over the laboratory countertop. Then I had to go re-explain to them how to clean it up… and make sure they did it correctly! After class I’d go back to the dorm, change clothes and shower.  Microbiology laboratory classes gave me the creeps.  Its kind of like having to visit someone in the hospital during flu season!  You constantly feel like bad “bugs” are getting on you.

Interestingly, what I remember most about microbiology was growing bacterial cultures in small round petri dishes.  First you fill the petri dish with food for the bacteria; typically, it was agar- agar, which is a gelatinous like sugar made from algae.  It looks like a gelatinous wax across the whole bottom of the dish.  Then you inoculate a small spot of bacteria into the middle of the dish.  The bacteria grow and multiply as the colony feeds on the agar-agar.  It grows and gets larger and larger and larger until it fills the entire dish.  Then the wastes and toxins the bacteria produce start accumulating, surrounding, drowning and killing the colony, until it entirely dies.  Does that remind you of anything like what is going on in our world today?

The evidence of mounting pollution is everywhere, and it’s not just a little bit of trash in the gutter or litter alongside the highways, although there is plenty of that unnecessarily.  It’s everywhere and in things and places we never thought of!  New signs are found almost every day. Pollution in our air, poisons in our soils, toxins in our groundwater and surface water, and we are putting them there!  They had no idea microplastics are everywhere, in soils, water, and air.  Yes, we are breathing them!  A new island of plastic the size of the country of Mexico has been located floating in the Pacific Ocean.  Initially researchers unexpectedly have found high levels of micro and nanoplastics deep in ice in the Arctic and alpine areas. More recently, they’ve been found in the snowy ski slopes of Leadville in western Colorado.  Microplastics are little pieces between 1 and 5 millimeters.   We couldn’t locate an accepted definition of nanoplastics, except they are smaller than microplastics.  They are microscopic in size.  Their small size to surface area ratio is believed to make them even more dangerous, because other contaminants could be adsorbed by them and undergo bioaccumulation and
bio-amplification phenomena.

Nanoplastics and microplastics are a worldwide problem, not just a problem here in the United States.  Micro and nano plastics were discovered ice in the Arctic.  No one was even thinking about them.  They were shocked to find them.  We were totally ignorant; we still are.  A wide range of plastic materials have been identified from micro and nano plastics including polymers from varnishes and paints, rubber particles from car tires, fibers from synthetic clothing and mass-produced plastics like polyethylene, PVC, polystyrene and polycarbonate which are used in many different types of applications.  They also likely arise from sources we haven’t even considered yet.

Since this has only been relatively recently discovered, little research has occurred.  But breathing in nanoplastics, which are so small they can cut and move between cells in your body, or the bodies of other animals cannot be a good thing.  At the least they could contribute to lung diseases and other organ damage.  But being so small, nanoplastics can move anywhere inside one’s body, and even through and between cell walls of a human and other animals.  Being in the ocean, seas and lakes, they are getting inside things we eat- including fish and shellfish.  Shellfish eat by filtering water through their bodies, so they can accumulate whatever is in the water, and now this includes micro and nano plastics.  As they are so small, they can easily be ingested by species at the bottom of the food chain. So, adverse impacts may be elevated and magnified throughout the food chain.

Micro and nano plastics couldn’t even get into snow and rain if they were not in the air. Further, although most of the few studies done on micro and nano plastics have been done in water, soils also may hold the large reservoirs of them.  Being in soils, they also could leach into our groundwater.  Research on these teeny-weeny pieces of plastic is in its infancy.  Although some research, mostly on wastewater disposal in the Bay Delta, has been ongoing relative to tiny plastics. I am willing to bet that no one has even looked at the potential micro/nano plastic issue in groundwater here.  

Another potential issue is that these tiny plastics no longer necessarily maintain the same characteristics of their original piece.  Further, they also may continue to be coated with the original chemical contents of the container or equipment of which they were a part.   A few years ago, a study was done of several countries around the world, including the United States Ecuador, Europe, Lebanon, Uganda, India and Indonesia. Orb Media reported in 2017 that plastics were measured by the number of fibers in 500 ml of water in about a dozen countries.  The US and Lebanon had the most, with 94.4% and 93.8 %, of the samples containing them.  While Europe and Indonesia had the least at 72.2% and 76.2%, respectively.  However, none of the numbers are anything to brag about.

Contamination of virtually all aspects of our environment by these plastics is clearly already a world-wide issue.  Similar to the City of Bakersfield and Kern County agencies needing to work together to manage our local environmental issues, just stopping the plastic pollution is going to take everyone in the world to partner and team together.  Whether or not the existing micro and nano plastic pollution can be cleaned up remains unknown.  Hopefully we (everyone in the world) can figure out how to at least minimize it before it’s too late.

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