SUNY Fredonia Study Finds High Levels of Plastic Pollution in Lake Erie

January 2, 2013 Updated Jan 2, 2013 at 8:41 PM EDT

By Ed Reilly

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January 2, 2013 Updated Jan 2, 2013 at 8:41 PM EDT

FREDONIA, N.Y. (WKBW) Dr. Sherri Mason, Ph.D from SUNY Fredonia is now compiling data from a major research effort studying pollution levels on the Great Lakes.

"No one has ever looked at the open waters of the Great Lakes," commented the associate professor of chemistry.

This past July, a team of seven research scientists and 20 students, sailed Lakes Superior, Huron, and Erie with the goal of collecting samples.

21 samples were taken and all showed contamination with micro-plastic.

"They are really small plastic particles," said Dr. Mason.

Micro-plastic occurs when larger pieces of floating plastic break apart over time.

"So, while the plastic gets smaller and smaller, it is still plastic."

Many of the samples included very tiny beads, and researchers believe they were flushed into the lakes by consumers using facial cleaners.

"Many people don't realize that these micro-beads, these exfoliants, that are in their common consumer products are actually plastic."

The highest levels of concentration were found in Lake Erie between Dunkirk and Erie, Pa. where the research team found concentrations of over 600,000 plastic pieces per square kilometer.

"That's two times higher than any published number from any sample anywhere in the world," explained Dr. Mason.

What makes the finding so troublesome is that the micro-plastic is often the same size as fish eggs, something that is eaten by local marine life.

"If you find it in a bird, if you find it in a fish, it is in us," warned Dr. Mason.

The results of the study will be submitted for publication in the "Marine Pollution Bulletin," a scientific journal, later this year.

Dr. Mason said another expedition will head out to sample the waters of Lake Erie in May 2013.