Big problem, small size: Improving methods in microplastics research
Nov 10, 2020
When it comes to plastic pollution, that candy wrapper half buried in the dirt is only the tip of the iceberg. Plastic bags, cigarette butts, and bottle caps are not just an eyesore, but over time they break down in the environment, creating small pieces of debris known as microplastics. Microplastics can include anything from synthetic fibers of clothing to industrial pellets from the plastic manufacturing process. Microplastics are now ubiquitous in our environment--found in our air, drinking water, sediment, and in the San Francisco Bay and global ocean.
Quantifying and characterizing microplastics in the environment is an emerging field of research, and SFEI is at the forefront. Standard methods for microplastics are still in development. Two recent publications from SFEI staff highlight the need for, and the steps to achieve, harmonized sampling and analysis protocols.
A new study coauthored by SFEI’s Dr. Melissa Foley and others summarizes recommendations and experimental considerations for sampling microplastics in different matrices such as water, sediment, and air. This study stresses the importance of having standardized methods so that results can be consistent and intercomparable. It is also crucial to follow strict quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC) protocols so that results accurately represent the actual contamination and inform management actions.
The second publication, coauthored by SFEI’s Dr. Rebecca Sutton and Meg Sedlak, emphasizes the importance of using appropriate sample collection methods for different microplastics questions. In this study, researchers compared microplastics concentrations observed in San Francisco Bay samples collected using three different techniques (manta trawl, 1-L grab, and a 10-L bulk water filtered sample). This study also highlights the importance of QA/QC.
Exposure to microplastics may cause harm to wildlife in the ocean and on land, and potential impacts to human health are even less well understood. Microplastics can be inhaled or ingested by humans, leading to exposure, with special concern for smaller micrometer and nanometer sized particles that can become lodged deep in tissues like the lungs. In collaboration with the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) and the University of Toronto, SFEI is hosting an ongoing webinar series on the adverse health effects of microplastics, with more information here.
Learn more about SFEI’s microplastic research efforts here.
Programs and Focus Areas:
Clean Water Program
Bay Regional Monitoring Program