Searching for the Elusive Plastic Pollution Off Connecticut's Coast

Nov 23, 2016
Originally published on December 8, 2016 9:41 am

Plastic today is everywhere: in our bottles and cell phones, our grocery bags, and our trash. Some plastic garbage is so small, it's impossible to see with the naked eye: tiny microbeads, which have been banned from some products because of their environmental impact. WNPR met up with a group of scientists who are looking for them, in an effort to determine how many are in the water off Connecticut's coast.

The R/V Lowell Weicker is a research vessel about 40 feet long. Its engine rumbled as we pulled out of the harbor at UConn’s Avery Point campus.

On board with me was Vincent Breslin, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University. We were headed to Mystic Harbor, hunting for a very specific type of plastic pollutant: microbeads.

"These are the microbeads that are typically found in cosmetic products," Breslin said. "Hand soaps, face lotions, exfoliants."

The little cosmetic abrasives are so tiny they can pass unhindered through wastewater treatment plants, and sometimes wash into the ocean.

"These microplastics have the ability to sorb chemical contaminants from the water onto the surfaces of the plastic microbeads," Breslin said. "Some of those contaminants can be things like PCBs or chlorinated hydrocarbons, pesticides, things that can be harmful."

Because if a fish eats a contaminated bead, that's bad for the fish -- and also possibly bad for us, should that fish make its way onto our dinner plates.

With that in mind, both Connecticut and the federal government recently passed bills banning the manufacture of certain soaps and "rinse-off" cosmetics containing microbeads.

Some of that legislation goes into effect as early as January. But as our boat idled near a wastewater treatment plant by Mystic Harbor, Breslin said that for all the legislative talk about microbead contamination, little research was done in Long Island Sound to see if the contaminants are actually in the water.

With the help of two of his students, Breslin lowered a long net into the water, which he dragged behind the slow-moving boat for about 10 minutes. The net had a mesh fine enough to capture certain microplastics.

After pulling the net out of the water, there was still a lot of work to do. The mesh was hosed down, forcing any microplastics into a waiting sample jar.

Graduate chemistry major Cody Edson said the microbeads are hard to see -- that is, until you get them under a microscope.

"Most of them are actually white or almost clear," Edson said. "They were kind of hard to find within the muck of whatever's on the surface of the water."

Breslin said he's yet to tow for microbeads and not find any. After one recent tow in New Haven harbor, Edson said his colleague, senior chemistry major Lela Jackson, found a lot. "Lela here found 42 separate microbeads," he said, "just on one filter paper."

In case you're curious, I checked in with Breslin a few weeks after the Mystic tow. While results weren't totally in yet, microbeads were in the samples.

Back on the boat, Breslin told me he plans to keep hunting for microplastics, "until I tow and don't find anymore plastic beads," he said. "I'd be shocked if in 2018, I came out and didn't find any."

Next year, he said he'd like to do tows in Western Long Island Sound, investigating harbors in Bridgeport and Stamford. After all, he said, unless scientists are out there -- dipping their hands into the water -- how will we know whether or not microbead bans are actually helping to drive down the volume of plastic contamination in Long Island Sound?

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Cody Edson in the second photo. Mr. Edson is on the left, not the right.

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