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Is Microplastic Pollution Getting Worse?

Despite the growing awareness surrounding microplastic pollution, it appears as though the situation may be getting worse. A recent study from the University of Manchester uncovered the worst known concentration of microplastic particles on the riverbed of a city waterway.

Perhaps even more concerningly, the monumental floods of 2015 and 2016 appear to have washed a substantial percentage of that waste away – most likely into our seas and oceans. This has led scientists to believe that previous estimates of five trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans are gross underestimations.

Bad news from Manchester

The research team, whose findings were published in the journal Nature Geoscience, analysed the composition of river sediments in 40 spots across 10 rivers in and around Manchester. 39 of the 40 sites tested showed significant microplastic contamination, with the worst site located on the bed of the River Tame.

This pollution hotspot contained over half a million particles of microplastic per square metre in the 10cm below the surface. That represents the highest concentration of microplastic pollution ever recorded worldwide, smashing the previous record held by a South Korean beach by almost 50%. What’s more, scientists say that there may be even more densely polluted spots elsewhere in the world which simply haven’t been tested yet.

Previous estimations way off the mark

Perhaps most concerningly of all, the challenges of flood control were shown in a new light after it was discovered that the torrential rain and subsequent flooding of 2015’s winter had flushed away approximately 70% of those pollutants. At a total of 43 billion particles weighing 850kg, that’s a significant contribution to oceanic pollution in just one event.

“This is a small to medium sized catchment in the north of England, it is one flood event, it is just one year – there is no way that [five trillion global] estimate is right,” remarked Rachel Hurley, co-author of the report. Roughly 33% of all microplastic samples found in the study were microbeads used in personal care and hygiene products, which were outlawed in the UK in January this year, causing yet more surprise and concern among the scientists.

Nowhere safe?

The fact that such a relatively small tributary in a developed country contributed such a staggering amount of microplastic pollution to the ocean in a single event suggests that nowhere is safe from the threat of contamination. Indeed, a Greenpeace study from earlier this year found that 31 of 49 locations north of the border were found to contain microplastic pollution, even in remote parts of the Scottish Highlands and islands.

The exact effect of all of this plastic is still unknown, though fish and other marine mammals often ingest the particles, causing premature death. The particles can also enter the human body, either through consumption of other animals which have eaten the plastic or through its infiltration into tap water, and it’s believed that some particles are even small enough to enter the bloodstream. More research is required to determine exactly how this may affect our health in the future.

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Jonny Sweet

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