Microscopic menace in lake may pose health risk
USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin investigates if there are microbeads in Lake Winnebago and the potential health threats they pose.
On the southern tip of Lake Winnebago, there's a picturesque spot where fishers get especially lucky. It's because of the treated wastewater gushing out just below. The fish like it.
It doesn't concern Autumn Fisher, the lead water quality analyst at the treatment facility in Fond du Lac. She's confident their settling and disinfection process catch the nasty stuff, dispelling a stream of treated water safe for swimming and fishing.
But there's one pollutant she's not sure about: tiny pieces of plastic called microbeads that are potentially toxic to fish and could be harmful to people who eat the fish. As far as we know, Lake Winnebago has never been tested for their presence.
So USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin is partnering with experts to answer that question, including Fisher and Lorena Rios Mendoza, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
Results should be available later this year.
So what are these things? Plastic microbeads, barely visible to the human eye, that are used as exfoliants in facewash and toothpaste. Tiny and buoyant, they've been shown to foil water filtration systems. They attract toxins like a sponge, get gobbled by fish, and, potentially, cause harm up the food chain.
"They're so beautiful under the microscope, but so horrible," said Rios Mendoza, who's been at the forefront of studying their presence in the Great Lakes. "We don't know the real consequences."
Rios Mendoza's discovery of microbeads in the Great Lakes led to a state ban on manufacturing personal care products with microbeads, set to go into effect next December. A more recent federal ban will force companies to stop using microbeads even sooner – by next June.
While Rios Mendoza counts the bans as victories, she's not breathing a full sigh of relief. There are several other types of microplastics that will continue floating through the waterways from other sources.
A study done by the U.S. Geological Society showed that on rivers feeding the Great Lakes, microbeads comprise less than 2 percent of microplastic particles found in the water. Other tiny bits of plastic, which can also circumvent water filters, come from plastic bags, water bottles, other litter and clothing.
"The most common ones are larger items that turn into fragments — anything from a water bottle, to a plastic shovel on the beach," said Nate Drag, a project coordinator at the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "Once they're out there, they're lasting hundreds of years. If it's a straw, we used it for ten minutes and then it can last for decades or longer out in the environment."
What do these plastics mean for public health?
"That's the million dollar question," said UW-Oshkosh professor Greg Kleinheinz, who works at the university's Environmental Research and Innovation Center. "They're plastic pieces, and we try not to eat plastic in general."
Microplastics pose several risks to wildlife and people. When animals ingest them, the particles can block the digestive system and may be deadly.
Additionally, microplastics often contain chemicals associated with cancer and hormone disruption, which impacts reproduction and other functions. They also easily absorb other pollutants in the water, accumulating them into more harmful concentrations. Research hasn't yet concluded the extent to which these toxins in plastic are impacting wildlife that ingest them, and whether they pose a risk in seafood.
Officials with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said the treatment process for drinking water is able to stop microbeads from making it to the tap. They said the filters are designed to tackle particles like Cryptosporidium that are smaller than typical microbeads. The department would not comment on whether the presence of microbeads in lake water could poses a threat to public health.
Rios Mendoza said there are several steps anyone can take to stop sending plastic into the waterways. She urged consumers to check ingredients lists on personal care and cleaning products for polyethylene (plastic). And she said it's important to avoid using plastic products like shopping bags and water bottles whenever possible.
"We are the source," Rios Mendoza said. "We consume a lot of plastic and we need to stop, or use with more responsibility."
Drag said companies should also be on the hook to reduce plastic production.
"Industry has a role they can play in this as well by creating more sustainably designed products," he said. "If its useful life is only 10-15 minutes, using materials that last decades or a hundred years in the environment might not make sense."