Scientists Find Tiny Exfoliating Beads In Great Lakes Fish Guts

Tiny plastic beads used in some cosmetics and toothpaste are making their way into the bellies of fish in the Great Lakes, and it's raising concern among environmentalists. Dr. Sherri Mason, a chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia, has been researching the issue, and she joins Audie Cornish to explain what this means for the Great Lakes ecosystem.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Plastic junk in our oceans has concerned scientists for decades. Over the weekend, the New York Times reported on new research that minute plastic beads, the kind used in cosmetics and toothpastes, are ending up in the Great Lakes.

Sherri Mason was featured in the Times article. She's an environmental chemist with the State University of New York in Fredonia, and she's been fishing for plastic in the Great Lakes for a couple of years now. She joins me from Fredonia. Welcome, Sherri Mason.

SHERRI MASON: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So explain just what these micro-particles are and where they come from.

MASON: They're exfoliating beads that are commonly found in facial cleanser, body washes, toothpastes. They're really small, although you can see them. And so, probably the products that we're most familiar - if you can imagine walking down a grocery aisle and seeing like, you know, the shelves filled with bottles. And you see this clear liquid with these floating beads that are like blue and orange. I mean they're brightly colored, they're really pretty to look at, and you look at that product and you're like, oh, that's cool. I want to buy it.

CORNISH: So where did you find them and how did you find them and in what concentrations?

MASON: In 2012, we surveyed three of the five Great Lakes. We looked at Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Erie, and they flow into each other that way, so Lake Superior's kind of the starting point of the Great Lakes chain. And what we do is we drag what's called a manta trawl. It's along the surface. It's a great big net, essentially, that we drag along the surface of the water.

And we collect anything that's bigger than a third of a millimeter in diameter so it's plastic, but we also collect plankton and fish and vascular plants and all sorts of stuff. And basically, what we found is as we went from Superior to Huron to Lake Erie, the concentration or the number of plastic particles increased. That wasn't a huge surprise. We did expect that, because of the fact that the water flows into each other.

Ninety percent of the plastic that we found was in Lake Erie. The largest being around 450,000 plastic particles per square kilometer, which in kind of more layman terms, that's over 1 million plastic particles per square mile. And these are concentrations that with the exception, I think, of one published study, it's the highest concentrations of anywhere in the world.

CORNISH: Sherri Mason, give us some context here. The Great Lakes is under threat from many pollutants, sewage runoff, agricultural waste. How big really is the threat from these tiny plastic beads?

MASON: You know, I think the biggest thing is that actually they kind of connect to all of the different issues that are impacting the Great Lakes, right? So they become a way for invasive species to move from one area to another because the species will actually cling to the plastic and move with the plastic. And so, essentially, the plastics themselves kind of almost become this conglomeration for all of these other issues.

It becomes a connecting point for all of these other issues and as a result, I really kind of see it as kind of like a very important emerging contaminant within the Great Lakes.

CORNISH: So you use this, I guess, very fine netting, right, to capture the beads. And can you talk about where you found them? Did you find them actually inside of fish?

MASON: So we captured some fish and looked to see if they were, in fact, ingesting plastic. We found that they were and what we're working on now is refining out methods and doing it in a little bit more quantitative fashion so that we can work on getting that work published.

CORNISH: Now, we should note that some of the cosmetic companies that use these micro-beads have made a statement about this. Can you talk a little bit about what they've been saying?

MASON: These companies realized, you know, that they hadn't maybe thought about the full life cycle with regard to these products and so they have pledged to remove these micro-beads by, in some case, it's 2015, in some cases it's 2017.

CORNISH: Sherri Mason, she's a professor of chemistry at SUNY in Fredonia. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MASON: Thank you for having me.

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