Apr 13

Uncovering Great Lakes Garbage Patch

Microplastics fro Great Lakes on Penny

A penny provides scale for the size of micro plastics being found in the Great Lakes ‘Garbage Patch.’ Credit: 5Gyres.

Until recently, my concept of a ‘garbage patch’ was of an area of ocean with large pieces of floating debris, the kind of stray fishing gear and trash from ships and shorelines that collect where currents form eddies far from view of most people.

Having seen my share of sea trash in 20,000+ miles of lake and ocean sailing and even untangled sheets of plastic and thick ropes from the propeller and rudder of my 37-foot sailboat, I was shocked to learn that the kind of garbage scientists are most concerned about is invisible to the naked eye. They’re finding tiny bits of plastic known as “micro-plastics” floating near the surface of the water in high concentrations. The particles are so small that a microscope is needed to even see them.

The scary news this week was about a garbage patch discovered in the Great Lakes last year. Although scientists have studied plastic pollution in the oceans since NOAA researchers discovered the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in 1988, a team of scientists is conducting the first-of-its-kind research on the open water of the Great Lakes. One of the team members presented preliminary results of a study on the topic at meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Photo: Great Lakes Garbage Patch research team. Source: 5Gyres

The team of researchers studying the Great Lakes ‘Garbage Patch’ in 2012. Credit: 5Gyres.

I spoke with Lorena Rios-Mendoza, an environmental chemist at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, and found that the buzz was certainly justified. Her background includes studying plastic debris and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the Pacific Garbage Patch and in the Southern Ocean. Now an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, she has turned her attention to these same issues on the North American Great Lakes.

“I’m interested in learning more about what happens to persistent organic pollutants when they attach to the plastic particles,” Rios-Mendoza told me. She is now studying 110 fish samples to see if they have plastic debris in their guts and to learn more about what happens to POPs associated with the plastic pollution. She wonders whether the accidental consumption of tiny bits of plastic by fish might be a new source for toxins in the food chain.

Photo: Sampling plastic pollution on the Great Lakes. Source: 5Gyres.

Sam Mason (on right) collecting samples of plastic pollution aboard the “Niagara” on the Great Lakes. Credit: 5Gyres.

Rios-Mendoza is working with a team of researchers led by Sherri “Sam” Mason, a SUNY-Fredonia chemistry professor and researcher at the forefront of research on plastic pollution within freshwater ecosystems, including the Great Lakes. Mason is actually an atmospheric chemist, but she also has a passion for environmental sustainability. A few years ago, a colleague at Niagara University invited her to teach an environmental science course aboard the Flagship Niagara, a rebuilt version of a tall ship used during the War of 1812 that is now used for on-water education programs. Having lived near the shores of Lake Erie for over ten years, she had never been out on the lake, let alone a sailboat, before teaching the summer course. Mason’s time on the water inspired her to take up an entirely new area of research: studying plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Modeling herself after scientists like Rachel Carson who are committed to sharing relevant research, Mason found that studying and trying to raise awareness about plastic pollution in freshwater systems suited her. “This is a fantastic area for research because the information is much needed and relevant to the scientific community and to people concerned about the Great Lakes,” she told me.

Mason and Rios-Mendoza have been working in collaboration with the 5Gyres Institute, a research and education group studying garbage patches in five subtropical gyres in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern Oceans.

Photo: Microplastic pollution in Lake Erie. Source: 5Gyres

Tiny pieces of plastic pollution found while sampling in Lake Erie. Credit: 5Gyres.

The team of researchers studying the Great Lakes wasn’t surprised to find plastic pollution, especially in Lake Erie, the smallest (by volume) and shallowest of the five lakes. They did find something interesting when comparing their results to the research in oceans. The concentration of PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons) in Lake Erie is twice as high as what is found in the world oceans. “This makes sense because the oceans are so much larger – there’s a dilution factor,” Rios-Mendoza said.

Something else the research team didn’t expect was the predominance of micro-plastic particles (less than 1 millimeter in diameter). In the world’s oceans, scientists have found higher percentages of debris in the 1-5 millimeter diameter size range as compared to the micro-plastics. Mason suspects that this is because of the larger ratio of shoreline to open water, creating an abrasive action to break down the plastic.

Photo: Sample of micro plastics from Lake Erie. Source: 5Gyres.

A sample taken from Lake Erie showing micro plastics less than 1 millimeter in size. Credit: 5Gyres.

They’re finding tiny, perfectly round beads of plastic in many of the samples, and this might hold another clue about the source of particles. “The cosmetics industry uses plastic micro-beads in soaps, toothpaste and other products. Because the products are not designed for ingestion, they don’t have to test for this. It’s completely unregulated and may be a significant source of micro-plastics finding their way into the environment,” she says.

Finding the sources of plastic pollution and getting a better idea of the degradation process is the subject of follow-up studies Mason and her team are working on.

More research is needed to compare the amount of plastic pollution from one lake to the next, but Rios-Mendoza explained to me that it takes more than two hours of towing the fine-mesh sampling net in Lake Superior to recover the amount of plastic in a 30-minute trawl from Lake Erie. The team plans to sample the St. Lawrence River and Lakes Erie, Michigan, and Ontario this summer, and as funding allows, to carry out more systematic studies of all five lakes.

How do plastics end up in oceans and now lakes? Well to begin with, we have become a throwaway society. We’re using and throwing away more and more plastics, sometimes after only using them once. The plastics are designed to last a long time, more than 500 years in some cases, Mason told me. In the U.S. alone, we consume “billions” of plastic bags and bottles. According to the 5Gyres website, only five percent of the plastics produced for things like water bottles, cups, utensils, toys and gadgets are recycled. “Roughly 50% is buried in landfills, some is remade into durable goods, and much of it remains unaccounted for, lost in the environment where it ultimately washes out to sea,” their website states.

Photo: fishing boats on Lake Erie. Source: Lisa Borre.

From the deck of a boat on Lake Erie, micro plastics are not visible in the water. Photo by Lisa Borre.

Plastic pollution is not only a problem in the water but along beaches and shorelines as well. Beaches in Hawaii were found to contain 50% sand and micro-plastics, Rios-Mendoza told me. The research team has not studied the amount of micro-plastics on Great Lakes beaches yet.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes leads an Adopt-a-Beach program to address the problem of beach pollution throughout the Great Lakes region. Mason participates in the Adopt-a-Beach program and says that her students are always surprised by how much trash they find on a beach that doesn’t look that bad at the outset. She is also leading a one-week course this summer in collaboration with Pangaea Expeditions, collecting samples for future research along the way.

“People need to be aware that we are the source of the problem, and because of this, we need to be part of the solution,” Mason said. “We all need to become aware of how much plastic we use in our lives and avoid using single-use products. Don’t buy water in plastic bottles or cosmetic products with micro beads. Bring re-usable bags to the store with you. Simple things like this make a big difference, but it’s also important to keep talking about this issue and raising awareness about how it affects the Great Lakes and the world’s oceans.”

It turns out that even this observant sailor has sailed right through garbage patches on the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes without noticing anything but the deep blue water that appears infinitely transparent. Now I realize what all the fuss is about. These new findings give me all the more reason to find ways to reduce, re-use, and recycle plastic at home and on my boat.

In short, I need to do my part to reduce plastic pollution in the world’s lakes and oceans.

Lisa Borre is a lake conservationist, freelance writer and sailor based in Annapolis, Maryland. With her husband, she co-founded LakeNet, a world lakes network, and co-wrote a sailing guide called “The Black Sea” based on their voyage around the sea in 2010. She is a native of the Great Lakes region and served as coordinator of the Lake Champlain Basin Program in the 1990s.

Aug 25

Green Water Is Not Always A Good Thing!

Unchecked pollution chokes Lebanon’s rivers

August 26, 2011 01:44 AM By Niamh Fleming-Farrell

The Daily Star

BEIRUT: “Let me tell you one thing,” Raghida Haddad, the executive editor of Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia, a Lebanese environment and development magazine, says. “There are 12 rivers in Lebanon that go into the sea, and you can call them sewers.

”Poisoned with effluent and often strewn with garbage, Lebanon’s rivers are grotty and unwell. They should be both a source of usable water and recreation, but a report published by the United Nations Development Program and the Environment Ministry in 2010 compiled data showing that rivers, both coastal and inland, contain unacceptable levels of raw sewage. In many, E-coli and coliform are not only above acceptable levels for drinking water, they are also above levels acceptable for bathing water as set by the Environment Ministry.

Blessed among its neighbors in terms of water potential, Lebanon’s contaminated rivers are both a source of sickness and disease and a contributor to the pollution of the country’s coast and marine life.

Haddad points out that the high concentration of heavy metals in river water can accumulate in the human body, affecting the nervous and digestive systems and damaging the heart and kidneys. Meanwhile Mark Saadeh, PhD, a hydrogeology specialist, recites a phrase well known in his profession: “The health of a marine environment is determined by the state of rivers.”

The interconnection of aquifers, rivers, seas and oceans means that pollutants added to any one of these will inevitably affect the others.

Saadeh pulls up a file on his computer and opens a series of images of the Litani river, Lebanon’s longest waterway. The pictures show a bright green, algae-covered channel. “It’s turned into a sewer system,” Saadeh says. “It’s not even moving; it’s stagnant.”

He explains how older people living along the river describe a time when it was clear and fast flowing, and they would happily use it for swimming and as a source of drinking water.

But since Saadeh first studied the waterway as a consultant with the Litani River Authority some five or six years ago, it has looked just as it does in his photographs. “It cannot get any worse than this,” he says.

What has happened can be explained with a short science lesson, which Saadeh provides. The high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus found in fertilizers and pesticides used in agriculture and in raw sewage and detergents seep into the country’s rivers and ultimately groundwater sources. Once in the rivers, these nutrients set off the process of eutrophication, whereby their addition induces an excessive growth of algae and plankton, clogging up the waterway, greatly reducing water quality and bringing about the collapse of the river’s natural ecosystem.

The solutions to this problem appear obvious: regulate use of agricultural fertilizers and pesticides and treat wastewater to avoid the seepage of raw sewage into rivers. But, Saadeh says, “precious little” is being done to address river pollution.

“There’s a huge black hole between legislation and execution [in Lebanon],” he says in explanation for the seemingly unregulated use of fertilizers. However, where a significant impact may be made – in the treatment of raw sewage – Lebanon fails on a grand scale. It is the “only country in the Middle East not treating its wastewater, save Yemen, I believe,” Saadeh says.

Haddad is of a similar view. The “authorities are not doing anything,” she says. “There is not one functioning wastewater treatment plant [in Lebanon].” Wastewater treatment plants have been built in the country. As he goes through his photographs, Saadeh points out one located next to the Qaraoun dam on the Litani. “It isn’t functional,” he says.

Former Environment Minister Mohammad Rahal says that many international organizations, the UNDP, USAID and EU among them, have helped Lebanon build works to treat its wastewater, but these WWTPs have not been maintained by the government. He believes there are two possible causes for WWTPs falling into disoperation in Lebanon: perhaps the budget for their maintenance is insufficient or unavailable, or perhaps a lack of coordination between the ministries responsible for them (the Environment Ministry and the Water and Energy Ministry), the Council for Development and Reconstruction and the municipalities leads to confusion over who is tasked with maintaining the plants.

Saadeh adds to this that projects like WWTPs are high-tech and require not only money but also expertise to remain operational.

Haddad does point out though that there are plans to build a number of WWTPs both on the coast and inland. The Energy and Water Ministry although contacted to verify use and construction of WWTPs had not responded at time of print.

The pollution of Lebanon’s rivers also impacts the country’s economy. Beyond the obvious negative repercussions of pollution on tourism, pollution also harms the agricultural and industrial sectors’ potential.

Farmers tap contaminated river water to irrigate their crops, and Rahal says this has resulted in the country’s exported produce being returned.

“The EU sends vegetables back because of pollution,” he says. “We can only sell in Lebanon.”

Meanwhile the decreased water quantity available due to pollution curtails opportunities to establish industry. “Limited water resources make some industries impossible,” Saadeh says. “There’ll be no Levi’s factory in Lebanon.” (Tony Allan, a British geographer, estimates that a pair of jeans takes 11,000 liters of water to produce.)

Saadeh argues that the best thing Lebanon can do to deal with water pollution aside from building wastewater treatment plants is educate its citizens about water conservation.

“Water quantity is inextricably linked to pollution because water efficiency and conservation would lead to reduction in effluent volumes,” he says.

As an initial step, he suggests metering water use and charging people on the basis of the volume used rather than a flat rate for an annual water connection. He also recommends revision of the irrigation systems used in agriculture – the furrow, flood, and sprinkler irrigation systems favored in Lebanon use larger quantities of water and are much less efficient than drip irrigation systems. Finally, he recommends the installation of more discerning household plumbing – toilet flush systems that give the option of both a smaller and a larger flush would be a good starting point, Saadeh says.

But, he concludes, “change is going to require a shock to the system.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 26, 2011, on page 12.

Aug 21

“Big Coal” Has Stolen Their Choices In Kentucky

EPA Officials Hear Concerns About Mining, Water Pollution in Eastern Kentucky

Erica Peterson August 19, 2011

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency are in Kentucky, touring areas in the eastern part of the state and meeting with residents who are concerned about the effect of coal mining on their communities.

At a community meeting last night in Whitesburg, the officials listened to residents describe their problems with coal dust, mountaintop removal blasting and the lack of state and local regulation enforcement.

“As we look at some of the things that are going on, we believe this area qualifies for extra environmental justice consideration,” says EPA Region Four administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming.

Environmental justice is the belief that pollution shouldn’t disproportionately affect groups like the poor or minorities. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who was not on the tour, has said in the past that achieving environmental justice throughout the country is one of her top priorities.

One of the common issues people mentioned was water. They say their water has been contaminated by mining or their wells ran dry after blasting cracked the water table.

Ada Smith lives in Letcher County. She left for four years to go to college on the east coast, and says she was bothered when her classmates began a campaign to stop people from drinking bottled water–they said it was bad for the environment. She says that isn’t a choice that people in the coalfields get to make.

“It was just one of these moments where I was like, why do these people get the opportunity to discuss how they want to have water and how they want to drink their water and how they want to spend money on water when we have to have a choice of whether we get water or not? I really want to have a choice if the rest of the country gets a choice,” she says.

The EPA officials will visit Lynch today.

Jun 20

Do I Need A Water Filter?

Do I need a water filter?

Never before has the need been greater for quality home water purification.

dirty-water
Water pollution remains one of the most visible and persistent signs of our impact on the natural world. Cleanup of some older pollutants has been offset by new contaminants that threaten freshwater ecosystems and foul our drinking water.

America’s tap water is contaminated with toxic heavy metals, synthetic organic chemicals, chlorination by-products, biological parasites and virtually thousands of harmful contaminants.

“E.P.A. reports show that U.S. water supplies contain over 2300 cancer causing chemicals…” — Ralph Nader Research Group

Studies also show that bottled water isn’t any purer than tap water, it simply costs more. Most quality home water purification products can provide water far superior to bottled water, at a fraction of the cost and in the convenience of your own home. The intention of this site is to promote the use of home water filtration, show what products are available and how to determine which ones are the best. Our goal is to also increase basic awareness of this critically important subject.

In America’s highly industrialized society we use over 80,000 toxic chemicals every day, and over 1000 new ones are being developed every year. We are learning the hard way that all of the chemicals we use, will ultimately show up in the water we drink. There is no “new water”, this planet keeps recycling the same water over and over. As we use more synthetic chemicals, the levels in our water supplies increases proportionately.

In contrast to popular belief, our water treatment facilities were not designed to take out synthetic organic chemicals and toxic heavy metals like lead. Municipal water treatment today is essentially the same as it was over 100 years ago, the water is flown through sand beds to remove visible particles and then bleach (chlorine) is added to kill most of the bacteria! We do not filter out the synthetic chemicals!

75 years ago, before all of these chemicals were present in our environment, 1 out of 50 Americans would get cancer in their lives… now, 1 in 3 Americans… 1 in 2 males, will become cancer victims! 1 in 8 women get breast cancer, childhood cancers have increased 300% in just the last 20 years… and much of this can be linked to the accumulation of man made chemicals in our body.

Cancer is not natural, it’s a man made disease, and for the most part… completely preventable. The purity of our water is one of the most critical factors in the prevention of cancer and other degenerative diseases. Water is our body’s only means of purifying its self. If our water already contains chemical contaminants, our body is not able to use it to its full benefit. When the risk is so great and the solution is so simple… why chance it?

In-home water purification is the most effective, by far the most convenient and most economical means of providing clean, healthy water for you and your family.

“Healthy water” is the best health insurance we can get… and home water purification is the best way to get it… possibly the only way.