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A new tiny enemy is threatening Lake Superior: microplastics

person holding microplastic pieces found on a beach
Adobe Stock

A new contaminant is threatening Lake Superior. Microplastics — tiny plastic fragments under five millimeters — have been discovered in the western basin of the lake.

Researchers are studying their impact on Lake Superior, but their size makes them difficult to see and study. Elizabeth Minor is a professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Large Lakes Observatory. She says larger pieces of plastic are broken down in the water.

“The microplastics that we’ve been able to see in Lake Superior look a lot mainly like fibers so they look like bits and pieces of clothing, bits and pieces of maybe fishing line or net or things that might have been some other structure but became fibers,” she said.

Minor says the smallest particles can pass through tissue — having an unknown impact on the environment. She says she and other researchers at the university are developing ways to test for microplastics.

“We do know they’re there. We know they’re there in greater quantities than they were before and we know that plastics tend to survive for long periods of time in the environment," she said. "So they’re likely to become a more visible part of the environment for the foreseeable future.”

Minor says researchers have found microplastics in fish stomachs and lake sediments. She says she’s developing a method to test for smaller particles.

Ella Lawson is a reporter for WDET 101.9 FM.

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