Research targets plastic pollution in Great LakesDr. Lorena Rios-Mendoza is spending much of July crossing the Great Lakes in search of a new type of pollution — plastic.
By: For the Superior Telegram, Superior Telegram
Dr. Lorena Rios-Mendoza is spending much of July crossing the Great Lakes in search of a new type of pollution — plastic.
The assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Superior will sample three of the Great Lakes to determine whether they contain the same types of tiny plastic fragments that plague the world’s oceans. She doesn’t know whether she will find a lot or a little, but she’s eager to understand how this recently discovered source of pollutants might be affecting the world’s largest reservoir of fresh water.
Rios-Mendoza is aboard the tall ship Niagara’s summer science cruise until July 31. She and two other scientists — working independently but sharing resources — will use a trawl net to sample lake waters as the Niagara navigates lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie.
The scientists are looking for tiny pieces of bottles, toys, fish nets and thousands of other miscellaneous types of plastic trash that have been washed into the lakes to be degraded by the sun and battered by the water into tiny fragments.
“We have this problem in the oceans,” Rios-Mendoza said. “This will be our first time looking for it in fresh water.”
Plastic pollution is a recently recognized problem in the world’s oceans, where great circular currents called gyres collect vast amounts of plastic fragments. These fragments often are mistaken as food by marine life and birds, which eagerly gobble them down.
If fish eat plastic, the material is inert and causes few problems. However, plastic fragments readily absorb pollutants such as pesticides and PCBs. These so-called endocrine disrupters can accumulate in fish, harming them and accumulating in larger animals — including people — that eat the fish.
“Everything floating in the water is food for animals,” Rios-Mendoza said. “These fragments can be eaten by fish and the pollutants will accumulate in the fish.”
After the three scientists collect their samples, Rios-Mendoza will bring her share of samples back to UW-Superior to be classified by type and color. She plans to work with undergraduate students next fall in analyzing the samples to determine their type and whether they contain pollutants.
Rios-Mendoza is no stranger to the study of plastic pollution. Before joining the UW-Superior she worked on researching plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean.