Southern researchers have found a collection of microplastics floating in New Haven Harbor – confirming the suspicions of Connecticut legislators and scientists that these substances are in our waterways and finding their way into Long Island Sound.0
More than two dozen “microbeads” were found during two days of collection in June. The microbeads are small plastic substances that are found in some toothpastes, as well as some cosmetic and facial cleansing items.
“The beads look like fish eggs. As a result, they are mistaken for food by various marine organisms, such as fish and other invertebrates,” said Vincent Breslin, professor of science education and environmental studies. Breslin supervised the collection of the microbeads conducted by then-SCSU student Peter Litwin.
“Obviously, plastic is not a good thing for wildlife to ingest,” Breslin said. “And while the beads themselves can be harmful, they also absorb other contaminants, such as oil and grease. So, the combination can be hazardous to the health of marine life. And obviously, this can affect people, as well, in the consumption of fish and other types of seafood.”
Breslin explained that as the substances are used, they are washed down the sink drains and into the wastewater system. He said these microplastics are not effectively filtered out of the wastewater system, and therefore, flow into waterways — such as rivers, harbors and ultimately, Long Island Sound.
And while a relatively small number were found during the study, scientists estimate that 8 trillion microbeads flow into the aquatic habitat in the United States each day, according to Breslin. And the beads are not biodegradable.
State lawmakers recently approved a ban on the sale of the substance in Connecticut that will take effect in 2017. While expert testimony was provided to lawmakers earlier this year to indicate the likelihood that the beads were in Connecticut’s waterways, the SCSU study appears to provide the first conclusive public evidence that they do.
“I was initially surprised when we found the plastic microbeads in the harbor,” Litwin said. “We didn’t even need to get back to the lab to spot some. Though small, the shape and bright color of some allowed them to be seen after careful inspection of the water we collected before even stepping off the boat. This was an early sign that the problem of microplastic contamination in New Haven Harbor was more advanced than we had hoped, and is likely just a microcosm of Earth’s water supply as a whole.”
Litwin conducted the study as part of SCSU’s Industry Academic Fellowship (IAF) program. Sponsored by the Werth Family Foundation, both undergraduate and graduate students are able to conduct interdisciplinary research, while also exploring the business-related side of working in technology. The program is coordinated through SCSU’s Office for STEM Innovation and Leadership.
Breslin said that other neighboring states, such as New York and Massachusetts, have not yet banned the substances. And because Long Island Sound abuts both Connecticut and New York, and because rivers that begin in other New England states flow down into Connecticut and into Long Island Sound, the beads will continue to flow into the Sound unless other states participate in a regional ban.
Products that include these microplastics have been on the market for the last several years, according to Breslin. Meanwhile, he said Long Island Sound receives about 1 billion gallons of treated water every day. “That means there are a lot of beads in the Sound,” he said.