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New research effort seeks to tell us how microplastics get into Lake Ontario and what they do to us

Microplastic particles on two human fingers for scale. Some plastic particles in water bodies are so small they're measured in nanometers.
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Micro plastic particles on a human finger for scale. Concept for water pollution and global warming.

Lake Ontario, like other Great Lakes, is loaded with literal tons of plastic fragments. That’s an established fact.

But scientists are still learning about what the presence of those plastics means for aquatic life and for humans, who consume roughly a credit card’s worth of plastic a week.

The University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology have begun a joint effort to answer some of the outstanding questions around microplastics. Their collaborative Lake Ontario Center for Microplastics and Human Health in a Changing Environment has received a five-year, $7.3 million grant to study how microplastics enter Lake Ontario and circulate within it, what types of plastics are in the lake, and their effects on human health.

“Being on the shore of a Great Lake, and being really aware of how important that is for recreation, fishing, and drinking water sources, that's a way that those micro plastics could get into people's bodies,” said Katrina Korfmacher, an environmental medicine professor at University of Rochester Medical Center and co-director of the new center. “And we know very little about what happens and what microplastics do inside the human body.”

Funding comes from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Science Foundation’s Oceans and Human Health program.

The microplastics in question are small enough that they often can’t be seen with the naked eye. Plastics get into the waterways and waves, sunlight, and other factors cause the material to breakdown into tiny fragments.

Researchers plan to study:

  • Where the plastics are coming from. 
  • What kinds of plastics are making their way into the lake, how they move around, and how they degrade over time. 
  • How microorganisms, some of which are pathogens, grow on microplastics. 
  • How microplastics interact with other contaminants in the water 
  • To what extent the tiny plastic fragments, some of which are only nanometers in size, get into the tissue of living organisms. 
  • How the plastics affect human health and environmental health. 
  • How climate change could influence the subjects they’re examining. 

Korfmacher said that UR researchers have already been looking at how microplastics affect living organisms. They’ve been studying what happens when tadpoles are raised in water that has low amounts of microplastics captured from Lake Ontario.

“They have already found that those microplastics do accumulate in tissues and that those tadpoles have reduced resistance to viruses,” Korfmacher said.

RIT students emptying a mesh debris trap from a stormwater drain in the city of Rochester.
Photo provided
Two RIT students empty a debris trap from a stormwater drain in the city of Rochester.

UR researchers also have developed membranes that they’ll use to capture the plastic particles from the lake.

At RIT, researchers will build on their existing work to characterize and quantify the plastics that are getting into the lake as well as models they’ve developed to estimate the amount of plastic in the lake and how it circulates within the water.

For example, over the past several years they’ve been working on a project to better understand how much plastic is entering the environment. Christy Tyler, a professor in RIT’s environmental science program and the center’s other co-director, said that’s involved going out and measuring the amount of plastic in small tributaries and using a mesh basket trap in suburban and urban storm drains to catch the plastic that washes into them.

“A large percentage of the debris that enters Lake Ontario is carried in by storm water,” Tyler said. “And so that stormwater component is exceptionally important to understand, and the delivery of stormwater is projected to change significantly with a changing climate.”

In the Rochester region, heavy rainstorms have become more frequent and more intense. That sometimes leads to flooding that could send more plastic waste into storm drains, streams, and ultimately the lake.

Matthew Hoffman, a professor in RIT’s School of Mathematics and Statistics, has helped develop models that estimate how much plastic enters the Great Lakes and the amount that is in them. In 2017, he used modeling to estimate that 10,000 metric tons of plastic enter the water system each year.

Community engagement also will be an important part of the new center’s work, both co-directors said. Those efforts will focus on communicating data and findings to the public in plain language and finding ways to involve the public in solutions to the plastics problem.

“If we can figure out the (plastics) that are the most common in the environment, and the ones that likely pose the greatest risk for environmental and human health, then that gives us a little more power to actually do something about it,” Tyler said.

Corrected: April 22, 2024 at 10:37 AM EDT
This article has been corrected to state that it's estimated that humans eat an amount of plastic equal to a credit card each week.
Jeremy Moule is a deputy editor with WXXI News. He also covers Monroe County.