Science Inventory

Microplastics in the aquatic environment - Perspectives on the scope of the problem

Citation:

Burgess, R. AND K. Ho. Microplastics in the aquatic environment - Perspectives on the scope of the problem. ENVIRONMENTAL TOXICOLOGY AND CHEMISTRY. Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Pensacola, FL, 36(9):2259-2265, (2017).

Impact/Purpose:

Over the last several years, concern has grown in both the public and scientific communities regarding the risks associated with the very small pieces of plastics (i.e., microplastics) accumulating in the aquatic environment. For example, in sections of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans microplastics and larger macroplastics have clogged the sea surface with vast rafts of discarded plastic. However, in the scientific community there continues to be debate as to the magnitude of risk associated with microplastics. In this Perspectives article, we bring together the four viewpoints of industry, regulators, academics and non-governmental organizations on the risk associated with microplastics in the aquatic environment. While all contributors agreed that large amounts of plastic should not be disposed of in the oceans and that continued study was worthwhile, disagreement occurred on the exact path forward for resolving this evolving environmental issue. This article contributes to the reader better understanding the perspectives of the various factions considering microplastics in the aquatic environment and presumably informs their opinion-making regarding this important environmental issue.

Description:

Almost 50 yr ago, in the classic film The Graduate, the main character Ben (played by Dustin Hoffman) was advised that his future should be in “plastics.” That future may be coming back to haunt all of us now. It is estimated that 5 to 13 million metric tons of plastics enter the oceans annually, and that amount is projected to increase by an order of magnitude in 10 yr if mitigation measures are not taken [1]. Freshwaters are also impacted with nearly 50 000 plastic particles found/km2, on average, in the water column of the Great Lakes in North America [2, 3]. Through degradation processes these plastics become progressively smaller until they approach the microplastic size of approximately 5000 to 1 µm and smaller (i.e., nanoplastics). In addition, microplastics included as components of many personal care and consumer products, like hand soaps and fleece clothing, enter directly into aquatic environments via wastewater [4]. Microplastics are present in the water column, sediments, and aquatic organisms which depend on waterways for their survival. As microplastics continue to be released and distributed throughout the aquatic environment (Figure 1), they leave a trail of questions: How much and what types of microplastics are most commonly found in the water column, in sediments, and in organisms? How much is too much? Is there a lower threshold? Do microplastics cause adverse ecological or human health effects? Do the chemicals they contain cause adverse ecological or human health effects? Do microplastics serve as a vector for conventional organic contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyls? What methods should be used to collect, extract/isolate, and identify microplastics in aquatic environments? What is the ecological and human health risk, if any, of microplastics in aquatic systems? Are regulations needed to control their release and mandate their cleanup? While some of these questions have been addressed as scientists, politicians, and society continue to recognize the magnitude of the problem microplastic may represent [5], others of these questions remain unaddressed at this time. Here, we bring together 4 perspectives on these questions and others—industry, government, academia, and a nongovernmental organization—to continue the ongoing dialogue regarding the risks associated with microplastics in aquatic environments.

URLs/Downloads:

https://doi.org/10.1002/etc.3867   Exit

Record Details:

Record Type: DOCUMENT (JOURNAL/PEER REVIEWED JOURNAL)
Product Published Date: 08/26/2017
Record Last Revised: 05/08/2018
OMB Category: Other
Record ID: 337533

Organization:

U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY

OFFICE OF RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

NATIONAL HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENTAL EFFECTS RESEARCH LABORATORY

ATLANTIC ECOLOGY DIVISION

POPULATION ECOLOGY BRANCH