"It's Everywhere": New Research Finds Microplastics Prevalent On Nantucket

JohnCarl McGrady •

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Microplastics have been found in Nantucket’s marine life, ocean water, sand, and even the island’s air, according to new research by UMass Boston.

The findings, presented to the public this week during the Nantucket Microplastic Symposium, included the discovery of tiny plastic particles between five millimeters and one micron in size at every site sampled on the island, and in every seal scat sample and nearly all shellfish tested.

“It’s everywhere,” said lead researcher Dr Juanita Urban-Rich.

Starting in 2019, Urban-Rich has led a team of UMass Boston students in studying microplastics on the island to create a baseline for future research. Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic. The largest microplastics are about the size of a pencil-top eraser, and the smallest are as small as a single bacterium.

They have been shown to have devastating effects on many lifeforms in high enough concentrations, altering sex determination, enzyme activity, inflammation, energy levels, and fertility. In one experiment done on Nantucket corals, the UMass Boston researchers found that corals treated with high levels of microplastics consumed less food and grew less, and that microplastics could effectively transmit disease.

While the effects of microplastics on humans are less well known, microplastics have been found in nearly every part of the human body, including blood, urine, and even the most remote lung tissue. One study estimated that humans consume 74,000 to 121,000 particles of plastic per year, including many through inhalation.

Many of these microplastics are believed to have come from single-use plastic containers that have broken down over time. Nantucket has banned most single-use plastics, but Urban-Rich doesn’t expect that to have too much impact on the levels of observed microplastics because Nantucket isn’t a closed system. Ocean and wind currents can bring microplastics from other areas to the island.

So far, though the researchers observed less plastic at some sites during the first months of COVID-19, there has been no sign that the single-use plastic bans have meaningfully decreased the concentration of microplastics on the island.

But Urban-Rich said that “every place that can reduce [plastic use] is going to help globally,” and praised the island for its efforts.

She presented a summary of the research findings at the Nantucket Atheneum on Wednesday, and the researchers explained their observations in more depth the next day at the Nantucket Community School, where attendees had the opportunity to ask them questions about their research and see their results. The researchers also set up a station where attendees could take a sample and filter out the microplastics themselves, observing the tiny particles using magnifying glasses.

Nantucket is not unique in its plastic problem. The concentrations of microplastics observed on the island are comparable to other similar communities, and as Urban-Rich said, plastic is everywhere - it has even been observed 36,000 feet below the surface in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean. 

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