Science Center Objects

Microplastics in the environment are of increasing concern among resource managers and ecologists. With global production of plastic topping 300 million metric tons in 2015, research in fresh and marine waters throughout the world has implicated urban runoff, wastewater treatment effluent, and litter breakdown as major sources of microbeads and synthetic pieces and fibers that are slow to degrade and can make their way through the water column and into bed sediment. Studies of microplastic toxicity and bioavailability have shown microplastics can have similar effects as those from contaminants of emerging concern, including leaching of chemicals that comprise the plastic material or those that have sorbed during use or in the environment, but with added physical effects. The issue of microplastics in the environment has even become a talking point for the U.S. military with regard to effects on ecology and how society can reduce inputs to the waters.

This study is being carried-out under the heading of the Northeast Region Urban Landscapes Capability Team.

Background

Microplastics in the environment are of increasing concern among resource managers and ecologists (Beaman and others, 2016; Baldwin and others, 2016). With global production of plastic topping 300 million metric tons in 2015 (Beaman and others, 2016), research in fresh and marine waters throughout the world has implicated urban runoff, wastewater treatment effluent, and litter breakdown as major sources of microbeads and synthetic pieces and fibers that are slow to degrade and can make their way through the water column and into bed sediment (Beaman and others, 2016). Studies of microplastic toxicity and bioavailability have shown microplastics can have similar effects as those from contaminants of emerging concern, including leaching of chemicals that comprise the plastic material or those that have sorbed during use or in the environment, but with added physical effects (Sussarellua and others, 2015). Human health concerns related to toxicity of the particles, toxicity of chemicals associated with plastic particles, and the ability of particles to serve as a vector for pathogens have been suggested (Vethaak and Leslie, 2016). The issue of microplastics in the environment has even become a talking point for the U.S. military with regard to effects on ecology and how society can reduce inputs to the waters (Lee, 2015).

Little is known about the long-term implications of continued release of microplastics into the environment, though one recent study has shown significant changes to the chemistry and microbiology of benthic habitats following the introduction of microplastics (Green and others, 2017). Resource managers have expressed interest in understanding the extent and magnitude of their presence and the potential for bioaccumulation and disruption to ecosystem services.

For more information microplastics, visit: https://owi.usgs.gov/vizlab/microplastics/

 

Study Objective

This pilot study will expand recent USGS work (https://owi.usgs.gov/vizlab/microplastics/) throughout the region and help train staff in each Water Science Center (WSC) to collect and interpret microplastics data thereby improving the overall capability of the region and USGS. A reconnaissance of microplastics sources in urban waters of the Northeast would provide information for cooperators and resource managers throughout the region. Presentation of microplastics data relative to water-quality data would provide context to the local stakeholders and local and USGS management on the issue. The USGS is committed to being on the forefront of scientific investigations relevant to human and ecological health.

 

Study Approach

Existing USGS water-quality monitoring programs will be leveraged throughout the Northeast Region (Maine to Virginia) and samples from a minimum of 20 sites (selected based on current monitoring program priorities and cooperator interest; figure 1) will be collected to generate a dataset that can be analyzed with statistical rigor. Ten sites per year over two years will be sampled for size distribution and classification of microplastics in urban stream. Two samples per site will be collected for this pilot study—one sample under normal/baseflow conditions and one sample under event/stormflow conditions—in conjunction with the routine water-quality sampling planned over a single season to assess differences in transport under differing flow conditions. Parameters included in the routine water-quality monitoring that will be assessed along with the microplastics data include, but are not limited to, nutrients, wastewater indicators, metals, and sediment. This will allow for interpretation of microplastics data in the context of chemistry data. Most of these sites have not been assessed for microplastics, and a comparison of microplastics in baseflow and stormflow conditions has not been evaluated in many of the studies conducted on the topic.

 

Microplastics Monitoring Sites

Figure 1—Map of potential water-quality monitoring sites in the Northeast Region to be sampled for microplastics. A total of 37 sites have been selected—20 primary sites and 17 back-up or potential add-on sites. (Sampling has already begun for 2017 season; for a list of sites being sampled in 2017, contact scfisher@usgs.gov)

 

Sampling locations will represent a range of hydrologic settings; therefore, samples will be collected via bridge, boat, or by wading, as appropriate for site conditions. A Neuston net, with 5.6 mm and either a 0.3 ore size (https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/neuston-net), will be deployed and used to sample across a waterway based on flow measurements (with volume and sample increments calculated for each site). Categorization and quantification of plastics, polymers, and lines will be conducted by the USGS WA WSC microplastics laboratory (Masura, 2015). Additional water samples will be collected, processed, and archived for USGS NWQL pharmaceuticals methods (analyses pending available funds).

Results from the microplastics analysis will be compiled and evaluated by the ULCT in the context of land use, hydrogeologic setting, and wastewater infrastructure (for example, sewage and storm drain outfalls), as well as compared to results from the Great Lakes assessment (Baldwin and others, 2016). Data will be provided to cooperators and stakeholders from each leveraged program following review, archived through USGS ScienceBase, and presented in a peer-reviewed journal article.

Cooperators interested in leveraging this microplastics assessment by including additional sites within the water-quality network using funds external to this request can contact their local Water Science Center—additional data would further enhance the dataset being developed under this proposal and may lead to additional program for the Center in the future.

 

This effort is being supported by the USGS Northeast Region HQ, Reston, Virginia.

 

References

Baldwin, A.K., Corsi, S.R., and Mason, S.A., 2016, Plastic debris in 29 Great Lakes tributaries—Relations to watershed attributes and hydrology: Environmental Science & Technology, v. 50, 10377-10385 p.

Beaman, J., Bergeron, C., Benson, R., Cook, A.M., Gallagher, K., Ho, K., Hoff, D., and Laessig, S., 2016, A summary of literature on the chemical toxicity of plastics pollution to aquatic life and aquatic-dependent wildlife: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, State of the Science White Paper, EPA-822-R-16-009.

Green, D.S., Boots, B., O’Connor, N.E., and Thompson, R., 2017, Microplastics affect the ecological function of an important biogenic habitat: Environmental Science and Technology, v. 51, p. 68-77.

Lee, T., 2015, Harmful to the environment—microplastic pollution is preventable: United States Army, https://www.army.mil/article/150417/Harmful_to_environment__microplastic_pollution_is_preventable, accessed December 2016.

Masura, J., Baker, J., Foster, G., and Arthur, C., 2015, Laboratory methods for the analysis of microplastics in the marine environment: recommendations for quantifying synthetic particles in waters and sediments: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Technical Memorandum NOS-OR&R-48.

Sussarellua, R., Suqueta, M., Thomasa, Y., Lamberta, C., Fabiouxa, C., Perneta, M.E.J., Le Goïca, N., Quilliena, V., Minganta, C., Epelboina, Y., Corporeaua, C., Guyomarchb, J., Robbensc, J., Paul-Ponta, I., Soudanta, P., and Huveta, A., 2015, Oyster reproduction is affected by exposure to polystyrene microplastics: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, v. 113, no. 9, 2430-2435 p.

Vethaak, A.D., and Leslie, H.A., 2016, Plastic Debris Is a Human Health Issue: Environmental Science & Technology, v. 50, no. 13, p. 6825–6826.