Tiny pieces of plastic called microplastics are turning up on northwest Iowa beaches, but researchers don’t know how far this pollution could go.
Microplastics are fragments of plastic less than 5 millimeters in size. After plastic in water bottles, cosmetics and even synthetic fibers from clothing break down in the environment, microplastics end up in oceans, lakes and streams and could harm aquatic life that ingest them.
But researchers don’t know a lot about the impacts of microplastics yet.
In fall 2018, Buena Vista University’s Ben Maas and some of his students started collaborating on research with Angela Mesenbrinka’s science class at Storm Lake High School to get an idea of how much microplastics pollution exists along the shores of Storm Lake. They collected little baggies of sand along the water's edge of three beaches.
“We just scooped sand up at the surface, dug down maybe an inch or two when we were scooping," said Maas, an assistant professor of environmental science and geology at Buena Vista University.
Maas and the students basically strained the samples in the lab to separate microplastics from the sand. They've found fleece threads, tiny chunks of car tires and even parking lot paint chips. BVU senior Mel Graf, who is studying environmental science and Spanish, has been helping break down the samples. She said what they’ve found so far really brings this environmental issue home to people.
“When we go walking on those beaches, we’re walking on sand but we’re also walking on microplastics,” Graf said. “We’re walking on pollution. Hopefully that’s something we can start to figure out ways to go about fixing.”
This is the first set of results, Maas said. The team is still processing more preliminary data. But researchers are left with many questions.
“We know that there is now microplastic pollution. But we don’t really know where is it going?” Maas said. “Is it getting deposited in the lake itself, the mud or the lake bed? Or is it getting deposited on the beaches?...”
Researchers also don’t know where these tiny pieces of plastics could be going in the watershed. Outlet Creek in Storm Lake drains eventually into the North Raccoon River. Maas wonders if microplastics are going there.
Mary Skopec, the executive director of Iowa Lakeside Laboratory in Milford, said it’s not surprising to learn that microplastics are turning up on Iowa beaches. They’re pretty ubiquitous, she said.
“If you think about your daily interaction with different materials, from things that you wear to what you drink out of to what you basically touch, how many times during the day are you touching plastics? Skopec said.
She continued, "We know that that is going to end up in the environment just because it's so dominant right now."
And Skopec said we don’t know all of the longterm impacts that microplastics could have.
“When we think about the microplastics getting even smaller as they break down, their ability to get into organisms – human or animal – do provide some pause for concern,” Skopec said. “I think that’s just reasonable that we want to think about it now, versus when we have a big problem.”
Maas said his team are still trying to figure out the exact ramifications these tiny pieces of plastics have for Storm Lake’s environment.
“As it is a potential place for chemicals and stuff to stick onto, it might be affecting the natural food chain,” Maas said, “you might be having smaller animals eating the microplastics and it might be causing some of them to get sick or die.”
The Storm Lake researchers would like to get a better grip on how widespread this problem with microplastics is. They hope to study more beaches in the area. Maas said they could even go kayaking on Storm Lake to further study microplastics' presence in the water. Iowa Lakeside Lab is also looking at doing some preliminary microplastics research of its own this summer.