Microplastics are polluting Long Island Sound and waterways around the world. Local researchers say 97% of water samples tested in a recent study contained plastics. NewsdayTV's Macy Egeland reports. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Scientists taking water samples from the entire length of Long Island Sound found that nearly every one contained microplastics, pieces of debris smaller than a pencil eraser.

Evidence from several studies has found microplastics can cause outsize harm to marine ecosystems and to human health, such as exacerbating the warming of oceans and lodging in the soft tissue of people and fish.

Researchers from Staffordshire University in England, Central Wyoming College and the Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean, a nonprofit group, took samples every three miles in Long Island Sound, from New York City to Fishers Island, using a filter that captures particles as small as 6 micrometers, tinier than the diameter of a human hair. The study, which began in 2016, was released early this year.

They found very high concentrations of microplastics at the narrow western and eastern ends of the Sound, where there may be a bottleneck effect. But the microplastics were everywhere: Waters were contaminated near densely populated areas and along the less developed East End. There was no stretch of water untouched by plastic trash, which has been found by the tens or even hundreds of trillions in bodies of water across the globe, from the Arctic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea.

Each year, about 11 million metric tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans, according to the Ocean Conservancy, nearly all of it originating on land. And these billions of plastic castoffs — Styrofoam coolers, PET water bottles, nylon fishing ropes, polyethylene shopping bags — shed fragments as they are battered by sun and waves. They may break down into ever smaller, even microscopic particles, but they never biodegrade. They will persist in the world’s oceans forever.

“The oceans are the foundation of all life on this planet,” said Rachael Miller, co-founder of the Rozalia Project and lead author of the study. Everything that enters the oceans also enters every branch of the food web, from plankton to humans. 

Microplastics and the chemicals added to them have been found in the bodies of marine animals across the globe, from gentoo penguins in the southern Indian Ocean to slipper snails in Long Island Sound.

A study of seabirds in 16 locations, including the Galápagos Islands, and islands in the sub-Antarctic and Sea of Japan, found nearly half the birds tested positive for chemicals that are added to plastics, such as flame retardants and UV stabilizers. Some of those additives are endocrine disrupters, which can interfere with growth and reproduction.

At the lower end of the food chain, small organisms such as zooplankton and fish larvae ingest the plastic bits, as do shellfish, crustaceans and finfish. Their stomachs filled with non-nutritive garbage, the animals can die of starvation. 

The plastic doesn’t remain lodged in the digestive organs; the tiniest particles pass through the stomach into other tissues, according to Luis Medina Faull, a fellow at the marine sciences department at Stony Brook University.

Various studies of fish have found links between ingesting microplastics and structural damage to the intestines, liver, gills and brain; others have found links to problems with metabolic balance, behavior and fertility.

When humans eat the fish, they eat the plastic, too, and it doesn’t just settle into the stomach. Microplastics have been detected in human blood, lungs, kidneys, livers and brains. They even make their way into placentas and breast milk.

Humans who avoid seafood can’t avoid ingesting microplastics: Researchers have found microplastics “pretty much everywhere they’ve looked,” Miller said, including bottled water, chicken, honey, eggs, beer and in household dust.

The evidence is accumulating that these tiny invaders are anything but benign. A study published in March in the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients who had microplastics in their arterial plaque — a buildup of substances that line the wall of arteries — were 4½ times more likely to experience a stroke or heart attack or to die in the three years after their artery-clearing surgeries.

There is also evidence that most studies of microplastics in ocean environments have underestimated the problem. Most studies collect samples using net tows, which can catch pieces as small as 300 micrometers. (A human hair ranges from 20 to 200 micrometers.) But when Medina and his colleagues used Raman microspectroscopy, a chemical analysis technique, to look at water collected in three different locations — off the Venezuelan coast and the Gulf Coast, and in the Pacific arctic — they found 60% of the particles in seawater were smaller than 5 micrometers. Some were as small as 1 micrometer, about the size of a typical bacterium.

Oceangoing plastic causes harm not just to the individual organisms that ingest them but to the entire marine ecosystem and even to planetary health.

“We tend to isolate the problems, but when you are talking about the marine environment, everything is related,” Medina Faull said.

Plastics in the water absorb heat, exacerbating the warming of the oceans, which cause die-offs of marine species and coral bleaching around the globe. In the Arctic Ocean, the warming effect of plastics “is melting the snow more quickly,” he said, accelerating the feedback loop of global heating.

When the researchers looked at their samples from Long Island Sound, they found 97% included microplastics. They wanted to know where the microplastics were accumulating and which of the thousands of petrochemical-derived products were contributing to the plastic soup along the Island’s shores.

They sorted their samples and found that three-quarters of the material was fibers. They further sorted them by type of fiber, color, width (which can differentiate polyester carpet from polyester board shorts, for example), shape (plastic filaments can be round, square, even triangular) and several other features.

“The majority of the fibers that we found,” Miller said, “are most likely, based on their characteristics, coming from the fashion industry, from the clothes we wear.”

Every time a garment is laundered, it molts tiny fragments of itself, fragments too small to be caught in the screens at wastewater treatment plants. More bits are shed in the dryer; some are caught by the lint trap, while others are flung into the air, and then settle or are washed into streams, lakes and oceans.

For environmentalists like Judith Enck, an Environmental Protection Agency administrator under the Obama administration and founder of the research and advocacy group Beyond Plastics, the only way to stop plastics from flowing into waterways is to stop making plastic. 

"We must look to alternatives to plastic, particularly for things that are commonly littered: bottles, food wrappers, cigarette butts," Enck told Newsday. "Those things exist today: glass, metal, cardboard. And unlike plastic, those things are recyclable." 

Enck favors “polluter pays” laws that make companies financially responsible for the throwaway products they produce and use. Last month the State Senate passed the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act, which would require companies to reduce their use of single-use plastics by 30% over the next 12 years, but time ran out before it could be brought to a vote in the Assembly. The bill was opposed by the plastics, chemical and fossil fuel industries.

The Plastics Industry Association did not respond to a request for comment. 

Marine scientists acknowledge reducing microplastics pollution will be an enormous challenge. “We use plastic for everything,” Medina Faull said. The question, then, is: “How can we produce the materials that are as cheap as plastic, and can we produce them massively?”

“We need to do this as fast as we can,” he added.

Scientists taking water samples from the entire length of Long Island Sound found that nearly every one contained microplastics, pieces of debris smaller than a pencil eraser.

Evidence from several studies has found microplastics can cause outsize harm to marine ecosystems and to human health, such as exacerbating the warming of oceans and lodging in the soft tissue of people and fish.

Researchers from Staffordshire University in England, Central Wyoming College and the Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean, a nonprofit group, took samples every three miles in Long Island Sound, from New York City to Fishers Island, using a filter that captures particles as small as 6 micrometers, tinier than the diameter of a human hair. The study, which began in 2016, was released early this year.

They found very high concentrations of microplastics at the narrow western and eastern ends of the Sound, where there may be a bottleneck effect. But the microplastics were everywhere: Waters were contaminated near densely populated areas and along the less developed East End. There was no stretch of water untouched by plastic trash, which has been found by the tens or even hundreds of trillions in bodies of water across the globe, from the Arctic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea.

A study found high concentrations of microplastics across Long Island Sound. The measurements reflect total pollution per liter. Credit: Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean

Each year, about 11 million metric tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans, according to the Ocean Conservancy, nearly all of it originating on land. And these billions of plastic castoffs — Styrofoam coolers, PET water bottles, nylon fishing ropes, polyethylene shopping bags — shed fragments as they are battered by sun and waves. They may break down into ever smaller, even microscopic particles, but they never biodegrade. They will persist in the world’s oceans forever.

“The oceans are the foundation of all life on this planet,” said Rachael Miller, co-founder of the Rozalia Project and lead author of the study. Everything that enters the oceans also enters every branch of the food web, from plankton to humans. 

What’s the harm?

Microplastics and the chemicals added to them have been found in the bodies of marine animals across the globe, from gentoo penguins in the southern Indian Ocean to slipper snails in Long Island Sound.

A study of seabirds in 16 locations, including the Galápagos Islands, and islands in the sub-Antarctic and Sea of Japan, found nearly half the birds tested positive for chemicals that are added to plastics, such as flame retardants and UV stabilizers. Some of those additives are endocrine disrupters, which can interfere with growth and reproduction.

At the lower end of the food chain, small organisms such as zooplankton and fish larvae ingest the plastic bits, as do shellfish, crustaceans and finfish. Their stomachs filled with non-nutritive garbage, the animals can die of starvation. 

The plastic doesn’t remain lodged in the digestive organs; the tiniest particles pass through the stomach into other tissues, according to Luis Medina Faull, a fellow at the marine sciences department at Stony Brook University.

Various studies of fish have found links between ingesting microplastics and structural damage to the intestines, liver, gills and brain; others have found links to problems with metabolic balance, behavior and fertility.

When humans eat the fish, they eat the plastic, too, and it doesn’t just settle into the stomach. Microplastics have been detected in human blood, lungs, kidneys, livers and brains. They even make their way into placentas and breast milk.

Humans who avoid seafood can’t avoid ingesting microplastics: Researchers have found microplastics “pretty much everywhere they’ve looked,” Miller said, including bottled water, chicken, honey, eggs, beer and in household dust.

The evidence is accumulating that these tiny invaders are anything but benign. A study published in March in the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients who had microplastics in their arterial plaque — a buildup of substances that line the wall of arteries — were 4½ times more likely to experience a stroke or heart attack or to die in the three years after their artery-clearing surgeries.

There is also evidence that most studies of microplastics in ocean environments have underestimated the problem. Most studies collect samples using net tows, which can catch pieces as small as 300 micrometers. (A human hair ranges from 20 to 200 micrometers.) But when Medina and his colleagues used Raman microspectroscopy, a chemical analysis technique, to look at water collected in three different locations — off the Venezuelan coast and the Gulf Coast, and in the Pacific arctic — they found 60% of the particles in seawater were smaller than 5 micrometers. Some were as small as 1 micrometer, about the size of a typical bacterium.

Oceangoing plastic causes harm not just to the individual organisms that ingest them but to the entire marine ecosystem and even to planetary health.

“We tend to isolate the problems, but when you are talking about the marine environment, everything is related,” Medina Faull said.

Plastics in the water absorb heat, exacerbating the warming of the oceans, which cause die-offs of marine species and coral bleaching around the globe. In the Arctic Ocean, the warming effect of plastics “is melting the snow more quickly,” he said, accelerating the feedback loop of global heating.

From washing machine to the Sound

When the researchers looked at their samples from Long Island Sound, they found 97% included microplastics. They wanted to know where the microplastics were accumulating and which of the thousands of petrochemical-derived products were contributing to the plastic soup along the Island’s shores.

They sorted their samples and found that three-quarters of the material was fibers. They further sorted them by type of fiber, color, width (which can differentiate polyester carpet from polyester board shorts, for example), shape (plastic filaments can be round, square, even triangular) and several other features.

“The majority of the fibers that we found,” Miller said, “are most likely, based on their characteristics, coming from the fashion industry, from the clothes we wear.”

Every time a garment is laundered, it molts tiny fragments of itself, fragments too small to be caught in the screens at wastewater treatment plants. More bits are shed in the dryer; some are caught by the lint trap, while others are flung into the air, and then settle or are washed into streams, lakes and oceans.

For environmentalists like Judith Enck, an Environmental Protection Agency administrator under the Obama administration and founder of the research and advocacy group Beyond Plastics, the only way to stop plastics from flowing into waterways is to stop making plastic. 

"We must look to alternatives to plastic, particularly for things that are commonly littered: bottles, food wrappers, cigarette butts," Enck told Newsday. "Those things exist today: glass, metal, cardboard. And unlike plastic, those things are recyclable." 

Enck favors “polluter pays” laws that make companies financially responsible for the throwaway products they produce and use. Last month the State Senate passed the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act, which would require companies to reduce their use of single-use plastics by 30% over the next 12 years, but time ran out before it could be brought to a vote in the Assembly. The bill was opposed by the plastics, chemical and fossil fuel industries.

The Plastics Industry Association did not respond to a request for comment. 

Marine scientists acknowledge reducing microplastics pollution will be an enormous challenge. “We use plastic for everything,” Medina Faull said. The question, then, is: “How can we produce the materials that are as cheap as plastic, and can we produce them massively?”

“We need to do this as fast as we can,” he added.

How to reduce microplastic pollution

There already are between 82 trillion and 358 trillion pieces of plastic floating on the surface of the world’s oceans, according to a study published last year in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE. Experts say it’s imperative to find ways to cut the manufacture of plastic materials of all kinds and to keep it out of the Earth’s waterways.

Environmentalists in New York will continue to advocate for a state law that will require businesses to cut the use of single-use plastics, which the State Senate passed in June. (The bill did not get voted on in the Assembly before the session ended.)

Some forward-thinking designers and engineers are developing fabrics made of biodegradable materials that nevertheless perform like synthetics. Stella McCartney used a fabric called Kelsun, made primarily from seaweed, in her spring collection this year.

But polyester is not going to disappear from store shelves any time soon, so Madeleine MacGillivray, the policy coordinator for the environmental justice group Seeding Sovereignty, said fabric can be treated with a product that allows microbes to digest synthetic fibers, so that they decompose in landfills or in waterways as natural fibers do.

Experts suggest there are some things individuals can do to reduce the ecological harms and personal exposure to microplastics:

  • Look for household goods packaged without plastic: bar shampoos, toothpaste tablets, dissolving laundry detergent sheets (which also are lighter to lug from the store). These also tend to be made without harmful chemicals like PFAS. 
  • Try products that collect microfibers shed in the washer, such as filters that attach to the outlet hose, or balls that attract the fibers as they swirl around with the laundry. 
  • If you’re in the market for a new machine, get a front loader, which causes less shedding than top loaders (so your clothes last longer too). Wash your clothes in cold water, which also reduces fiber shedding, and clean the dryer’s lint screen after every load. Once it’s clogged, the fibers just fly out the vent.
  • Wear natural fibers when possible and avoid fleece, the fabric that sheds the most, according to Rachael Miller, co-founder of the Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean.
  • Avoid drinking water bottled in plastic. Water bottles are one of the largest source of ocean trash, and those who drink mainly bottled water consume twice as many microplastics as those drinking from the tap, according to a 2019 study.
  • Anything made of plastic — bottles, straws, cigarette butts, fishing lines and ropes, food wrappers — should be discarded properly in the trash.
NewsdayTV's Elisa DiStefano and Newsday food writer Marie Elena Martinez take a look at the hottest places to dine on Long Island this summer.  Credit: Randee Daddona; Newsday / A.J. Singh

A taste of summer on Long Island NewsdayTV's Elisa DiStefano and Newsday food writer Marie Elena Martinez take a look at the hottest places to dine on Long Island this summer. 

NewsdayTV's Elisa DiStefano and Newsday food writer Marie Elena Martinez take a look at the hottest places to dine on Long Island this summer.  Credit: Randee Daddona; Newsday / A.J. Singh

A taste of summer on Long Island NewsdayTV's Elisa DiStefano and Newsday food writer Marie Elena Martinez take a look at the hottest places to dine on Long Island this summer. 

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