Plastic fragments amassing in Thames River, London researchers find

A Western University professor is researching the microplastics that are making their way into the sediment of the Thames River, and her findings so far indicate that there’s a whole lot of them.

A Western University professor is researching the microplastics that are making their way into the sediment of the Thames River, and her findings so far indicate that there’s a whole lot of them.

Patricia Corcoran is a sedimentary petrologist with Western University’s department of Earth Sciences and she’s heading up a first-of-its kind project that analyzes microplastics in the sediment of the Thames River.

Corcoran, along with masters and doctoral students working under her, are taking samples of sediment from 34 locations between Mitchell, London and Woodstock. She was inspired to do so after studying shoreline plastic in Hawaii and having students study shoreline plastic on Lake Huron and Lake Erie.

“What we see on the surface is one thing, but what don’t we see below the water?” Corcoran said.

The project, which began at the end of 2016, is expected to last 10 years. Corcoran’s team has been able to analyze one round of samples so far and found that out of the 34 samples they took, not a single one had zero amounts of plastic.

“Majority of them were found proximal to cities,” Corcoran said. “The sample with the greatest number of plastics was found at the forks of the Thames.”

Corcoran said the microplastics they find are categorized as fibres, fragments, beads and films. She said about 68 per cent of plastics they found were categorized as fibres, which can come from a variety of sources like clothing, plastic bags or rope.

“They’re so tiny and get into so much . . . something like your polar fleece sweater if washed releases maybe up to 1,000 fibres in your washing machine,” Corcoran said. “They’re too small to be trapped . . . they go down pipes and end up in the wastewater treatment plant and their nets and sievesare too large to trap the fibres so they make it out to the water.”

Corcoran said plastic fragments could come from everyday items like ketchup bottles, and beads can come from products like body wash or toothpaste.

To collect sediment samples, Corcoran heads over to each of the 34 predetermined sites with her students and uses a grabbing tool called a Petite Ponar. Decked out in hip-waders, Corcoran lowers the tool into the water to grab sediment, which is then scooped into glass jars.

Eventually, the sediment is processed at a lab with the help of Corcoran’s students — something that can take weeks to do.

Sara Belontz is a doctoral student working under Corcoran on the Thames River project. She said she started this work because she is passionate about sustainability and plastics pollution.

“It’s become such a widespread problem and there’s been numerous publications saying how ubiquitous plastics pollution is,” Belontz said. “But with microplastics. . . it is a vast issue because not only does it affect microorganisms, it can also go up the food chain to fish and eventually bio-accumulate to what is on the table for people to eat.”

Corcoran said researchers are realizing microplastics pose a great risk to microorganisms that consume them and absorb pollutants from them. She said some studies have also shown that those pollutants are transferred to the larger organisms that eat them.

“The big question that needs to be answered is will those pollutants affect humans too?” Corcoran said.

In the meantime, Corcoran said people should begin to find alternatives to plastic to reduce waste and, of course, continue to recycle.

And while she’s not a biologist or ecologist, Corcoran said she hopes her research will help others find areas where they could study living organisms and see how plastic affects them.

“Plastics pollution is such a collaborative topic . . . just a geologist or biologist couldn’t solve this,” Corcoran said. “We need to work together.”

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