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Microplastics Pervasive in Great Lakes Tributaries

Sample microplastics (photo: AP)

By Veronica Volk

Plastic debris is a pervasive problem in waters that feed the Great Lakes, according to a new study from the U.S. Geological Survey. And it's a complicated issue to address.

Most of the microplastics found in the Great Lakes ecosystem are less than a millimeter in size, like the period at the end of a sentence.

Austin Baldwin, a hydrologist and co-author of the study , says tiny particles come from our cosmetics, our garbage, even our clothing.

“If you kind of pinch your fleece, you'll come away with some little plastic fibers, kind of curly little fibers," he said.

These particles can poison fish and birds that eat them, says Sherri Mason , a chemist with SUNY Fredonia."As the plastic is in the water it can pick up synthetic chemicals, they absorb onto the surface of the plastic and then when the plastic is ingested those chemicals move with the plastic and move into the food web."

The U.S. has banned products that contain one type of microplastic called microbeads -- exfoliating particles in certain toothpastes and facial scrubs.

But the USGS study shows these are only a fraction of the problem. Almost three quarters of the microplastics in the sampled waters , came from broken down garbage, like diapers, plastic bags, and cigarette butts.