Assessing the amount, quality, and risk of microplastic contaminants in aquatic ecosystems

January 5, 2017, Wiley
Assessing the amount, quality, and risk of microplastic contaminants in aquatic ecosystems
Credit: Wiley

Since the first reports on a dramatic increase in microplastic contamination in the sea twenty years ago, research efforts have intensified worldwide. A review in the journal Angewandte Chemie has critically evaluated these studies and concludes that the analytical methods have to be harmonized to get comparable data. Further development is needed to assess particles in the lower micrometer range and below as well, as these pose the highest risks for aquatic ecosystems.

The review written by Natalia Ivleva, Alexandra Wiesheu, and Reinhard Niessner at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, starts with a remarkable observation (at least for an outsider). While marine ecosystems have been investigated extensively for around two decades and first attempts for (EU) standardization are made, results on freshwater environments are only emerging. Moreover, the obtained data for both marine and are poorly comparable because of the very different . However these data still point to a diverse, but no less alarming pollution situation in freshwater rivers and lakes.

The review describes the currently used analytical methods with their advantages and drawbacks. For example, the reader learns that the visual inspection of the samples (derived from sediment, water surface or bulk) still takes a prominent role although the chance of false (both positive and negative) results is very large. And the lower size limit for optical detection is recommended to be about 500 micrometers, whereas the most interesting—because probably the most harmful—microplastic particles and fibers are in the range down to one micrometer or even nanometers. On the other hand, have been successfully implemented which can unambiguously characterize the quality of the plastic particle down to one micrometer, provided certain analytical requirements are met. The authors propose that these spectroscopic techniques, combined with the emerging thermoanalytical techniques, will provide reliable data in the future, but they need to be continually developed and optimized.

As their most important point, the authors call for a harmonization of methods. For an accurate assessment of the data, the sampling, processing, identification, and quantification of microplastic particles in aquatic environments have to be standardized, most desirably, worldwide, they say. Thus Ivleva and her co-authors present a list of nine arguments that have to be accounted for in the future if reliable conclusions on the risks of microplastics pollution can be made.

The authors also discuss the uptake of microplastics and its effects in living species, and they highlight the necessity of enhanced research efforts towards the distribution of plastic additives such as plasticizers, fillers, or flame retardants in the tissue, which are potential health hazards. Thus, the article adds important aspects to the ongoing discussion on microplastic pollution in marine and freshwater biotopes and presents valid solutions for future management.

Explore further: Fate of nano- and microplastic in rivers explained

More information: Natalia P. Ivleva et al. Microplastic in Aquatic Ecosystems, Angewandte Chemie International Edition (2016). DOI: 10.1002/anie.201606957

Related Stories

Fate of nano- and microplastic in rivers explained

October 18, 2016

Very tiny plastic particles of micro and nano size are difficult to measure in the environment to assess exposure risks. Researchers of Wageningen University & Research now provide the first mechanistic modelling study on ...

Microplastics harm freshwater fauna

April 14, 2016

Microplastics—tiny particles of plastic less than five millimeters in size—are polluting rivers and ponds along with chemical contaminants. The particles come from cosmetics such as exfoliating body scrubs or are washed ...

Plastic waste is a hazard for subalpine lakes too

October 7, 2013

Many subalpine lakes may look beautiful and even pristine, but new evidence suggests they may also be contaminated with potentially hazardous plastics. Researchers say those tiny microplastics are likely finding their way ...

Microplastics—an environmental cause for concern

July 19, 2016

Plastics became widespread after the second World War, and as a material, plastic is still relatively young. Microscopic plastic particles, or microplastics, have caught the eye of researchers only quite recently. Microplastics ...

Microplastics 'pollution puzzle' in PNAS News feature

May 12, 2015

In May, PNAS published an article that describes how research developed from finding unexpectedly high numbers of plastic particles in the marine environment to developing methods for identification and to effect assessment ...

Recommended for you

Bio-renewable process could help 'green' plastic

January 19, 2018

When John Wesley Hyatt patented the first industrial plastic in 1869, his intention was to create an alternative to the elephant tusk ivory used to make piano keys. But this early plastic also sparked a revolution in the ...

Simulations show how atoms behave inside self-healing cement

January 19, 2018

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have developed a self-healing cement that could repair itself in as little as a few hours. Wellbore cement for geothermal applications has a life-span of only 30 ...

A new polymer raises the bar for lithium-sulfur batteries

January 18, 2018

Lithium-sulfur batteries are promising candidates for replacing common lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles since they are cheaper, weigh less, and can store nearly double the energy for the same mass. However, lithium-sulfur ...

Looking to the sun to create hydrogen fuel

January 18, 2018

When Lawrence Livermore scientist Tadashi Ogitsu leased a hydrogen fuel-cell car in 2017, he knew that his daily commute would change forever. There are no greenhouse gases that come out of the tailpipe, just a bit of water ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.