Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

August 2, 2013

Editorial: 'Microplastics' new threat to Great Lakes

Every few months, it seems, there is another Great Lakes crisis. We’ve seen toxic algae, invasive mussels, industrial and wastewater pollution, fertilizer runoff, Asian carp and lamprey eels.

Through it all, the lakes have somehow survived, though at a cost. Native species have been wiped out and the price of dealing with other fallout has run into the tens of millions.

Now there’s a new threat that’s just as scary as anything that has come so far but essentially invisibile: masses of tiny plastic particles, some so small they can only be seen through a microscope, found in Lakes Superior, Huron and Erie. Lakes Ontario and Michigan are being checked right now by scientists skimming the surface with fine mesh netting.

Experts say it’s unclear how long the “microplastic” pollution has been in the lakes or how it is affecting the environment. Studies are under way to determine whether fish are eating the particles, which may come from city wastewater, and passing them up the food chain to humans.

So far, scientists have discovered that the number of plastic specks in some samples from Lake Erie were higher than in comparable samples taken in the oceans.

They also know where many of the particles — perfectly round pellets — come from: they are abrasive “micro beads” used in personal care products such as facial and body washes and toothpaste too small to be captured by wastewater treatment plants and washed into the lakes.

Labs have detected two potentially harmful compounds in the Lake Erie plastic debris: PAHs, created during incineration of coal or oil products, and PCBs, which were used in electrical transformers and hydraulic systems before they were banned in 1979.

Both are capable of causing cancer and birth defects.

Michigan has a long history with PCBs. In the 1970s a Michigan chemical plant mistakenly added PBB (polybrominated biphenyl) — a toxic fire retardant related to PCB — to dairy cattle feed, and distributed it to farms across the state.

Text Only

Opinion Poll
AP Video
Raw: 2 Shells Hit Fuel Tank at Gaza Power Plant Raw: Massive Explosions From Airstrikes in Gaza Giant Ketchup Bottle Water Tower Up for Sale Easier Nuclear Construction Promises Fall Short Kerry: Humanitarian Cease-fire Efforts Continue Raw: Corruption Trial Begins for Former Va Gov. The Carbon Trap: US Exports Global Warming UN Security Council Calls for Gaza Cease-fire Traditional African Dishes Teach Healthy Eating 13 Struck by Lightning on Calif. Beach Baseball Hall of Famers Inducted Israel, Hamas Trade Fire Despite Truce in Gaza Italy's Nibali Set to Win First Tour De France Raw: Shipwrecked Concordia Completes Last Voyage Raw: Sea Turtle Hatchlings Emerge From Nest Raw: Massive Dust Storm Covers Phoenix 12-hour Cease-fire in Gaza Fighting Begins Raw: Bolivian Dancers Attempt to Break Record Raw: Israel, Palestine Supporters Rally in US Raw: Air Algerie Flight 5017 Wreckage