Hidden Threats: Research focuses on reducing microplastics in Michigan waters

This article is the first in a three-part series about understanding and mitigating environmental health risks threatening Michigan and its residents, highlighted in the recently released Tackling Environmental Health Threats report. It is made possible with funding from the University Research Corridor.

Researchers are continuing to discover more about the prevalence of microplastics in our waters and their long-term effects. As one of the world's largest surface freshwater ecosystems, the Great Lakes are an essential part of the conversation. 

In Traverse City this summer, as part of a larger series on Hidden Health Threats, the University Research Corridor (URC) held a community conversation between Michigan researchers, lawmakers, and local community leaders on the emerging threat of microplastics in our waters.

“When plastic goes into the environment, it can enter into the soil, the ocean, or into fresh water,” explains Assistant Professor Muhammad Rabnawaz, from the School of Packaging at Michigan State University (MSU). “The majority of the polymers that we use are not biodegradable, but they are weak enough that, with the passage of time, they will erode into tiny pieces. Those tiny pieces are what we call microplastics, and they stay in the environment for a long time.”

Rabanawaz and his colleagues are looking at new ways to address the ways that current packaging methods have contributed to the microplastics problem. 

“According to an estimate, 46% of the plastic waste is coming from the packaging,” acknowledges Rabnawaz. “And 95% of the plastic waste from packaging is single-use. We use it for two to five minutes and then throw it away. We need to be asking ‘Can we convert that waste into something useful? Can we improve recycling? Can we design a package that can be easily recycled?’”

Despite current concerns, Rabanawaz is hopeful for the future — especially because of events like this one designed to bring forward a conversation between researchers and local lawmakers. 

“I think educating and informing people who have the power to do legislation is very important,” says Rabnawaz. “Putting university experts with community leaders and legislators, I think is something that gives me hope that we are going the right direction and that one day we will have hopefully a safer environment.”

The Traverse City roundtable was the last stop on URC’s Hidden Health Threats tour, which debuted alongside a new URC report titled Tackling Environmental Health Threats. Previous stops included a conversation on PFAS contamination in Grand Rapids and another on flooding and infrastructure in Detroit.

The conversation, which took place at the Hotel Delamar downtown, featured presenters from URC’s constituent organizations. Alongside Rabnawaz, Assistant Professor Melissa Duhaime from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan, and Assistant Profesor Rodrigo Fernandez-Valdivia from the Wayne State University School of Medicine, each presented their own findings and recommendations for assessing and addressing the threats posed by microplastic contamination in and around the Great Lakes.

The researchers were joined by State Senator Wayne Schmidt, who chaired the roundtable discussion following the presentations, and by several community leaders including Traverse Connect President & CEO Warren Call, Hans Van Sumeran, director of the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) in Traverse City; Mark Breederland, an Extension Educator with Sea Grant Michigan, a cooperative program of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Christine Chrisman, executive director of The Watershed Center–Grand Traverse Bay; and Jay Meldrum of Michigan Technological University, who works with Traverse City on Northern Michigan issues.

Fernandez-Valdivia agrees that education around researchers’ findings is crucial in tackling the issue. “Once we all recognize the problem, then we can all address it,” he says.

The focus of his talk at the event was on the preliminary findings he and his team made related to the effects of microplastics on long-term health.

“Microplastics, because of their size, can easily get into the human body,” he shares. He explains that microplastics themselves have been found to contain chemical substances that act as endocrine disruptors — disrupting hormone systems in both humans and animals.

“Not only can these disruptors affect the normal development of boys and girls,” says Fernandez-Valdivia, “But we know that particularly in cases like breast cancer or ovarian cancer that those are types of oncogenic processes that are linked to hormone imbalances as well.”

Fernandez-Valdivia says the situation could become dire if no action is taken. 

“We could end up in a scenario where there will be basically no organ that will not be affected by microplastics,” he says. “Right now, we know that there are recent reports indicating that microplastics have been found in the placenta […] and there is even a more recent report about how they may have some epigenetic type of mechanisms or effects. Those epigenetic effects are worrying because they can be passed from one generation to the next.”

“We usually tend to assume that the effects of pollutants will affect you or will affect me,” he adds. “But now we know that they, yes, they will affect us, but they may not only affect us—they may directly affect future generations. And I think that's why it's important to focus on recycling and on producing and using less plastics — particularly single-use plastics.”

He also believes more research is needed to determine the full extent of the effect microplastics may have on our collective health.

“What we need to do now is not only test those individual compounds, but also test microplastics in a laboratory setup so that we can establish causal relationships between exposure to microplastic, certain types of plastics, and some biological or medical outcomes that we're missing,” he says.

Senator Schmidt, who says he found many of the statistics shared by the researchers impactful, agrees on the need for more research, as well as the importance of lawmakers staying informed on current research.

“I think our environmental standards have not been weakened, he says. “However, we need to continue to make sure that that they are maintained, if not strengthened, to prevent these new types of threats.”

“Being in person and talking to people — those stories, those interactions, really make a difference,” says Schmidt. “I appreciate the URC and its goal in getting better research that people can understand and make decisions on; whether as a lawmaker, a consumer, or just a member of the public.”

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