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When it comes to finding small plastic particles in the Great Lakes, nobody does it better than Dr. Lorena Rios-Mendoza.
It's a job she is passionate about and embraces, because the quality of not only the water but the fish species also depends on it. "I like it because it's something we can show the community that we need to be careful with the plastics, said Dr. Rios-Mendoza. "We need to work together to say plastic is bad, just recycle and reuse. We have no idea how long some of these plastics stay in the ocean, could be more than 40 years." The amount of plastic debris increases every day and degrades so slowly that it effectively never disappears, it is only dispersed.
The UW-Superior assistant professor of chemistry is doing research that is getting local, regional, national and international attention due to the unique work that she and her team are doing.
She first started her research back in 2003 at the University of the Pacific working with support of Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, California where she looked into macro and micro plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean and found the plastic problem there was a concern. When she joined the UW-Superior staff in 2010 she decided to take a closer look into plastics and the water quality in Lake Superior and started doing her scientific research into that subject in 2011.
The tiny plastics that they are finding now on the Great Lakes are so small, that they are not getting stopped at waste treatment plants and find their way eventually into the Great Lakes. Some of the plastics they are finding are very large pieces of plastic and researchers are also finding other dangerous debris that finds its way into the water as well.
Rios is working with 5 Gyres Institute, a Los Angeles based nonprofit group and together they were doing more research on the Great Lakes in August of 2013. The group headed to Lake Michigan first, than Lake Huron and Lake Erie. Other research stops also took place on the Sea Dragon research boat.
Last year, the research that Rios and her team collected was aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara a wood sailboat that she was not only a research and scientist on, but also a member of the sailing team on the ship. She had to assist with chores on the ship during the entire journey. They made stops on Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Erie in the summer of 2012 and Rios and her team collected 22 samples in the Great Lakes a year ago. She worked with Sherri Mason, a chemist with State University of New York-Fredonia. Rios said she found more micro plastic debris in the ocean by weight than in Lake Erie. But in Lake Erie there was more quantity in a condensed form.
She took a student researcher with her this summer, Chi-Yeon Evans and they were again looking for more microplastics on their ten day journey. Dr. Rios also worked with high school teachers around the country and gave them insight into her microplastics research work along the Great Lakes.
Dr. Rios said it is very important that we find alternatives to plastics that don't harm the water or the aquatic organisms such as fish and one way to do that is think about how you use plastic. Education is the key she feels. She suggests the four R's, reuse, recycle, reduce, and refuse plastic items when offered.
She is clear that she doesn't want to hinder the plastic manufacturing industry. She just wants to work to find alternatives and educate users on ways that are safer for the environment.
One thing Rios does want to find is some answers during her research, she said, "We want to find evidences, so we can show those that are in power that the plastics is a danger pollutant , and maybe we need to change our use of plastics."
Changing consumer habits would be the easiest and cheapest way to make an impact right away she feels. She presented some of her research in April at the meeting of American Chemical Society in New Orleans, Louisiana. There she gave an overview that the incidence and accumulation of microplastics create significant risks to the ocean and now to the Great Lakes environment because of the known potential of these microplastics to absorb persistent organic pollutants that can harm aquatic organisms.
Dr. Rio has several UW-Superior students working with her, and they like the research and get some great opportunities for hands on research and presentations at undergraduate conferences.
Further research is necessary to determine the magnitude of this problem and the impact it has on society. Sampling of the waters and shores of the Great Lakes in search of plastic debris will need to continue.
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