Microplastics in the water


Science that’s put in service to commerce can sometimes bring troubles to waters.

 Decades ago, scientists at Procter & Gamble came up with a phenomenally successful detergent – the washday miracle “Tide” that lifted dirt off clothes in the washing machine and kept it off.

 Only later did the public discover that the phosphate components could harm rivers, lakes and ponds by nourishing algae that caused waters to stink, put rashes on swimmers, clog motorboat props and deprive fish of oxygen.

 It took fights in the halls of government lasting years, but governments got to banning phosphates from detergents. Algae blooms still happen, but not from clothes-washing.

 So, government action can successfully address contamination – but not always. Sometimes there has to be a corrective scientific step.

 Take PFOAs, the class of chemicals that go into a range of wondrous consumer goods such as non-stick cookware and also firefighting foams that effectively douse flames. Those chemicals have also been outlawed but there’s no solid agreement on how to get them out of the water (including drinking water) once they get in. Hence the disturbing nickname: the forever chemical.

 And now take microplastics, those tiny shards and tiny beads of plastic that wind up in oceans, lakes and rivers. They come from exfoliating soaps, beauty products, polyester clothes, discarded plastic cups, and such. Some of the junk winds up in the bellies of aquatic life – meaning, the food chain – and some winds up simply as floating garbage.

 In 2015 Congress passed a law that outlawed the sale of cosmetics that included microbeads, but the stuff remains in waters around the world to the consternation of clean-up experts

That’s worrisome because plastic pollution is seemingly everywhere, as documented by the USGS.

 The National Park Service has also weighed in with a report.

 The first message from all this is that we ought to stop the problem from getting worse by doing such things as improving recycling and discouraging the sales and marketing of single-use plastic products such as bottled water.

But what to do about all the plastic crud that’s in the oceans and lakes now?

There’s not been much good to report until this summer when an 18-year-old Irish lad won first place and $50,000 in a Google science fair by proposing to use a NASA-developed liquid to remove plastic particles from the water.

 Here’s the winning contest entry.

A PROMISING STEP! The winning teen concedes that there’s still a lot of work to do, but he’s got a start, by using science to do good to combat science that, so far as our waters are concerned, has done more than a little wrong.