Microplastics are everywhere, from the bellies of sea turtles to the world’s deepest underwater trench. The latest study to add this heap of evidence saw a team of scientists and environments test a variety of different bodies of water for microplastics – all of the sites came back positive.
The research by Bangor University in Wales and Friends of the Earth specifically looked at 10 rivers and lakes in the UK, spanning the whole country, including the iconic River Thames, the remote Scottish lochs, and the rural lakes once-romanticized by English poets.
The team used an easy and low-cost method involving a fluorescence lighting system to identify and count microplastic pollutants (less than 5 millimeters in size) per liter of water, such as plastic fragments and fibers. To their surprise, they found microplastics in every single site they studied.
“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," Dr Christian Dunn, a biologist at Bangor University, said in a statement.
The worst affected sites were the River Tame in Greater Manchester (over 1,000 plastic pieces of plastic per liter of water), River Thames in London (84.1 pieces per liter), and the River Irwell in Salford, Greater Manchester (84.1 pieces per liter). Even one of the most remote sites, Loch Lomond in the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, contained around 2.4 pieces of plastic per liter.
Although microplastics are often associated with cosmetic products, like face scrubs with tiny plastics beads in, they can come from a huge number of sources, including car tires and road markings. Our clothing is also a surprisingly common source of them. A 2016 study found that each wash of polyester, acrylic, and polyester-cotton clothing can result in 700,000 microscopic synthetic fibers to drain into the wastewater, which can then make its way into the wider environment.
Since microplastics are a relatively new concern, not a lot is known about their impacts on human health and ecosystems yet. However, a number of governments have already taken action on the issue, such as banning microplastics from cosmetic products, hoping to curb the problem before it's too late. The team hopes that their research will serve as yet another piece of evidence for policymakers to consider when acting on this growing scourge.
“Plastic pollution is everywhere – it’s been found in our rivers, our highest mountains, and our deepest oceans,” added Julian Kirby, plastics campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “MPs must 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.”