As a follow-up to an article, Researchers Shocked by Microplastics in the Madawaska Watershed, published by The Current last November 2019, I was intrigued to investigate further if microplastics existed in our four lakes situated just west of Barry’s Bay. Microplastics are fragments of plastic that can come in the form of synthetic fibers, plastic fragments, or microbeads and less than 5 mm in length. Above: lake in fall. Photo Harrison Haines
JP Thonney, a former marine biologist who conducted last year’s study of the Madawaska River near Arnprior, kindly agreed to my request to sample all four of our lakes this past June. As it turned out, 50 particles were collected from the 36 water samples taken from our lakes. Carson and Trout Lake each averaged 1.25 artificial particles per litre; Lepine (2.5 particles per litre); and Greenan (1.7 particles per litre). The majority of microplastics collected were synthetic fibers such as polyester.
So where are these microplastics coming from?
“They are ubiquitous,” says JP. They permeate everywhere on earth. I have learned that they can just as easily be found in the Arctic watershed and our numbers could have been affected before or after a rain event according to JP. The source of microplastics can come from aerial dispersal, our clothing releasing synthetic fibers, broken down plastic from single use plastic litter such as plastic garbage bags and drinking bottles, and even frayed nylon ropes used to tie boats. And let’s not forget our personal hygiene products where microbeads can be found in toothpaste, shower gel and face wash.
Even despite quieter activity on the lakes this spring due to COVID-19, microplastics were still found. Results are lower than what one would expect from an urban area, but particles are still present nonetheless. The size of fragments ranged from 1mm to 9 mm. These microplastics were naked to the eye but could be seen under magnification.
The problem now faced
Microplastics are remnants of different polymers that when ingested by aquatic life are now part of the food chain. So serious concerns have now been raised over the possible effects to our health especially for those with weakened immune systems. So how much are we ingesting or inhaling and how is it affecting our health? It has been reported that it has been found in beer, bottled water, and even tap water. [Thompson, 2018]
What can we do to minimize its presence in our lakes?
It is difficult to discern the origin of microplastics in our lakes. But when it comes to synthetic fibers used in clothing, try opting for those made with natural fibers that can decompose. Consider purchasing a front load washing machine which is gentler on clothes and provides less friction to break apart fibers during the washing cycle. Properly recycle plastic refuse and keep plastic debris out of the environment so that soil and water contamination is prevented. And please keep plastic boat gear, such as polypropylene ropes and fishing lines, in good repair.
In the meantime, microplastics continue to be a global problem which requires a global solution. The issues surrounding plastic production, consumerism and waste management need to be seriously addressed. It is crucial that we all do our part to minimize the harmful effects from plastic in our environment now.
About the author: Wendy Wolak has been a seasonal resident of Madawaska Valley for much of her adult life. She is currently the Vice President of the Carson Trout Lepine and Greenan Lakes Association.