‘Emerging contaminants’ polluting UK’s most remote waterways

‘Emerging contaminants’ polluting UK’s most remote waterways

March 7, 2019
Marcia González

From the Thames to Loch Lomand, the UK’s most iconic waterways are full of plastic pollution, according to a new study

Considering microplastics have been found in the deepest depths of the Mariana Trench as well as inside sea ice floating in the Arctic, the fact that some of the UK’s most famous rivers and lakes are polluted, too, is hardly a surprise. However, the extent of the pollution, with up to 1,000 pieces of plastic found per liter in the worst-polluted rivers – and more so the remoteness of some of the sites studied – should be a major cause for concern.

A recent study conducted by Bangor University and Friends of the Earth looked at 10 sites, including lakes in the Lake District, waterways in Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, a wetland and a Welsh reservoir – and microplastics were found in all of them. These findings, the researchers feel, suggest that microplastics should now be considered as an “emergent contaminant” and that routine monitoring of all UK waters should take place.

Using a fluorescence lighting system, the team were able to identify and count microplastic pollutants (less than 5mm in size) per litre of water, such as plastic fragments, fibers and film.

The waterways surveyed (including pieces of plastic per liter of water) were: the River Thames, London (84.1); Chester reedbed (7.6); Ullswater in the Lake District (29.5); the River Irwell in Salford, Greater Manchester (84.8); the River Tame, Tameside, Greater Manchester (>1,000); the River Blackwater, Essex (15.1); the Falls of Dochart, Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park (3.3); Loch Lomond, Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park (2.4); Afon Cegin (River Cegin) North Wales (76.9); and the Llyn Cefni reservoir in Anglesey, Wales (43.2).

Friends of the Earth and Dr Christian Dunn (who led the research for Bangor University) say further work is now essential to fully investigate any health risks from microplastics – to humans and ecosystems – so that ‘safe’ levels can be ascertained, and removal and mitigation processes can be put in place.

“It was more than a little startling to discover microplastics were present in even the most remote sites we tested, and quite depressing they were there in some of our country’s most iconic locations, lamented Dunn (pictured above). “I’m sure Wordsworth would not be happy to discover his beloved Ullswater in the Lake District was polluted with plastic.

“These initial findings show that we have to start taking the issue of plastic in our inland waters seriously. Plastic is polluting our rivers, lakes and wetlands in a similar way as pollutants such as so-called ‘emerging contaminants’ like pharmaceutical waste, personal care products and pesticides.

“As with all emerging contaminants, we don’t yet fully know the dangers they present to wildlife and ecosystems, or even human health, and to what levels they occur in all our water systems. But it’s now clear that microplastics should be considered a serious emerging contaminant and there needs to be a concerted effort to regularly monitor all our inland waters for them.

“Our method provides a straightforward and low-cost way of doing this, so we now need to roll it out and see if our preliminary results are just the tip of the iceberg.”

“Producing this data was a real team effort and it’s great that an absolutely vital part of that team was a group of MSc students in the School of Natural Sciences,” Dunn added. “The group, from the Bangor Wetlands Group, were instrumental in the method development, sample collection and analysis, and it shows that Masters students at Bangor University really get stuck-in to some cutting-edge research during their studies.”

“The widespread contamination of our rivers and lakes with microplastic pollution is a major concern, and people will understandably want to know what impact this could have on their health and environment,” agreed Julian Kirby, plastics campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “Plastic pollution is everywhere – it’s been found in our rivers, our highest mountains and our deepest oceans. MPs must get behind new legislation, currently before Parliament, that would commit the government to drastically reduce the flow of plastic pollution that’s blighting our environment.”

Although there have been numerous studies on plastic pollution in the marine environment and some on the sediment of waterways, less research has been conducted on microplastic pollution in actual water samples from inland systems in the UK. The methodology used in this study offers a simple low-cost way of collecting and analyzing samples, allowing regular nationwide monitoring of waterways.

Last year, a report by Eunomia for Friends of the Earth estimated that huge quantities of microplastic pollution are entering UK waterways from a number of sources every year. The key sources of pollution include car tires (7,000-19,000 tonnes), clothing (150-2,900 tonnes), plastic pellets used to make plastic items (200-5,900 tonnes) and paints on buildings and road markings (1,400-3,700 tonnes).

Plastic Free World Conference & Expo 2019 will take place from Thursday 27 June to Friday 28 June, at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Frankfurt, Germany. To register for this highly focused and solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email peter@trans-globalevents.com


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