News, Culture and NPR for Central & Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
91.7FM Alpena and WCML-TV Channel 6 Alpena are off the air. Click here to learn more.

Great Lakes microplastics are abundant, research lags in assessing impacts

Oregon State University

More than 22 million pounds of plastics end up in the Great Lakes every year. These plastics break down into smaller and smaller particles known as microplastics, which can now be found in fish, drinking water, and even our own blood.

Microplastics are fragments of any type of plastic less than five millimeters in length. They come from litter breaking down, microbeads in body washes or hand sanitizers, fibers from clothing, and plastic pellets used for industrial production, among many other sources.

Carolyn Foley is a researcher with the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant program. She said some research has shown that microplastics in the Great Lakes can impact the growth and reproduction of aquatic organisms.

“If you have little plastic particles filling your gut, and you’re stressed about a bunch of other things [like aquatic invasives, habitat loss, a changing climate, and other pollutants], in my mind, that’s not going to be very helpful,” Foley said.

Foley said the presence of microplastics in water could actually worsen environmental contamination of chemicals like PFAS and PCBs, which stick to the tiny plastic fragments.

“Plastic is a thing that can really engage the public because everybody uses plastics versus some other chemicals with a bunch of acronyms you don’t understand," Foley said. "People have been [undergoing] a massive effort to understand if they’re harmful.”

For Foley's full presentation on microplastics, watch the YouTube recording from Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.