Water Quality: Microplastics

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


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 by asking the audience to think about how many things they use every day that are made of plastic or have plastic in them. The answer was stunning: plastics are pretty much everywhere, in everything, in our every day life.

Plastic production accelerated in the 1960s. Now over 300 million tons are produced annually. More than half the production is single-use plastic, which ends up as trash. 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 so have perhaps an even more powerful impact on fresh water.

Her research is focused on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, which has considerable scope for the study of land-water interaction because of its unusually large ratio of land to water.

She is studying the impact of microplastics, which are smaller than 5 millimeters in size. Examples are fibers (the most common, typically plastic strands from clothing), 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? She has found microplastics 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 Rovers: and (3) biofilms in Baltimore Harbor. She noted the plastic microfibers she found in Nash Run, a tributary of the Anacostia River, are likely coming from laundry and synthetic turf. Also, microplastics appear to be concentrated around trash traps.

Microplastics have environmental and human health impacts. Small organisms can ingest them and the microplastics can be magnified up the food chain. More than 260 species are known to ingest microplastics. Potential effects on human health include skin irritation, respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, digestive issues, reproductive effects or cancer.

Dr. Meiller stated that the next steps in her research will be to narrow down the sources of the microplastic pollutants she has observed and to better understand the interaction of the pollutants’ components.

–Anne Vorce, Water Quality Committee