Water Quality: Microplastics

FOSC sponsored a talk on microplastics on February 18, 2020 entitled “Microplastics in Tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay – including the Use of Synthetic Turf in Montgomery County” in response to the proposal to place synthetic turf on a section of Ellsworth Drive.


Dr. Jesse Meiller, environmental toxicologist and marine ecologist, professor American University, “Microplastics in Tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay”

Dr. Kathy Michels, neuroscientist and one of the founders of the FOSC


Dr. Meiller opened her talk by asking the audience to think about how many things we use every day are made of plastic or have plastic in them. The stunning answer: plastics are pretty much everywhere, in everything in our daily life.

Plastic production accelerated in the 1960s. Now, over 300 million tons are produced annually. Of this, more than half the production is single-use plastic, which ends up as trash after just one use. An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic waste goes into the ocean each year.

Almost all the research about plastic pollution has focused on oceans. However, as Dr. Meiller pointed out, plastics are produced on land and may have an even more powerful impact on fresh water.

Current Research

Dr. Meiller’s current research focuses on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The Bay has an unusual ratio of land-to-water which makes it good for studying the way plastic pollution interacts with land and water.

In particular, she studies the impact on the watershed of microplastics, which are plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters in size such as:

–fibers (the most common, typically plastic strands from clothing),

–tiny fragments of plastic items,

–foam (pieces of food containers and coffee cups),

–nurdles (plastic pellets usually used in manufacturing), and

–microbeads (in cosmetics and soaps).

In contrast, macroplastics include plastic bags, bottles, and lids, among other items.


What has Dr. Meiller found in her field work? That microplastics are found in:

(1) sediment and water samples from Rock Creek, the Anacostia River and the Potomac River;

(2) the gastrointestinal tracts of catfish from the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers; and

(3) biofilms in Baltimore Harbor.

She noted that the type of plastic microfibers she found in Nash Run, a tributary of the Anacostia River, are likely to be coming from laundry and synthetic turf. Also, microplastics appear to be concentrated around trash traps.

Microplastics have environmental and human health impacts. Since small organisms can ingest them, microplastics can be concentrated up the food chain. So far, researchers know that more than 260 species ingest microplastics. Potential effects on human health include skin irritation, respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, digestive issues, reproductive effects and cancer.

Dr. Meiller stated that the next steps in her research will be to narrow down the likely sources of the microplastic pollutants in her samples. She will also be working to better understand the interaction among the components of microplastics.

–Anne Vorce, Water Quality Committee