Natural Sciences Department

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Great Lakes sampling trip yields plastics from Lake Erie

Posted on Aug 8, 2012
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Dr. Lorena Rios takes a break from sampling at one of the Niagaras ports of call.

Dr. Lorena Rios takes a break from sampling at one of the Niagara's ports of call.

Dr. Lorena Rios' trip across the Great Lakes to sample plastic pollution yielded little on some lakes but a worrisome amount on Lake Erie.

The assistant professor of chemistry at UW-Superior worked with two other scientists and a boatload of students on a three-week science cruise aboard the sailing vessel Niagara. The scientists were looking for tiny pieces of bottles, toys, fish nets and thousands of other miscellaneous types of plastic trash that have been washed into the lakes to be degraded by the sun and battered by the water into tiny fragments.

Rios said the trio found little plastic debris on lakes Superior and Huron. However, they came up with a troubling amount of small pieces on Lake Erie.

"We were surprised in a good way that we didn't find high concentrations of plastics," she said. "However, the size we found is easily ingested and has more surface area to absorb persistent organic pollutants."

Plastic pollution is a recently recognized problem in the world's oceans, where great circular currents called gyres collect vast amounts of plastic fragments. These fragments often are mistaken as food by marine life and birds, which eagerly gobble them down.

If fish eat plastic, the material is inert and causes few problems. However, plastic fragments readily absorb pollutants such as pesticides and PCBs. These so-called endocrine disrupters can accumulate in fish, harming them and accumulating in larger animals - including people - that eat the fish.

Rios plans to work with undergraduate students this fall to analyze the samples to determine their type and whether they contain pollutants. "My research now will see whether this plastic has persistent organic pollutants" that could get into fish, she said.

Rios hopes to join the Niagara next summer to sample the waters of lakes Michigan and Ontario to see what sort of plastic pollution may be found.

News Contact: Al Miller | 715-394-8260 | amiller{atuws}
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