The pollutants can remain in the environment for more than 50 years and can accumulate in fish and other organisms, proceeding up the food chain on ingestion by other species. PAHs can cause DNA damage in organisms that accumulate higher concentrations, which, in turn, can lead to cancer or physiological impairment. PCBs can cause cardiac problems, skeletal deformities and neurological deficiencies. Some of the compounds are classified as endocrine disrupters, meaning they affect hormone levels and systems in plants, animals and even people. "We don't know what's going on yet with the fish or the organisms eating the plastic with these pollutants in the Great Lakes," Rios says. "I plan to study whether the endocrine system of the fish is damaged and whether the problem stops there or moves up the food chain in harmful amounts all the way to humans." She also plans to study what happens to the compounds after the fish die.
The first research of its kind in the Great Lakes was preceded by studies demonstrating that plastic and micro plastics in the oceans has immediate and long-term impact on marine life small and large, including filter-feeders such as clams and mussels. POPs can be passed via mother's eggs, Rios says, impairing the most sensitive life stage of embryos and larval fish when even minor health problems reduce survival rates.
Fish gut analysis by the ODNR has found plastic wrapped around fish intestines. Mason says a fisherman sent her a photo of a fish from Mexico Bay off Lake Ontario that got caught in a plastic ring when it was younger; as the fish grew, the ring constrained its growth as if it were a corset.
During this summer's follow-up studies in lakes Erie, Michigan and Ontario, along with the Saint Lawrence River, Mason and her colleagues will continue to examine the way in which sunlight breaks down the plastics, causing chemicals to escape into the water as well as try to locate more exact sources of plastic pollution. "You can almost never identify what product or where the source of micro plastics is out to sea," explains Marcus Eriksen, executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute. "But in the Great Lakes we can." Because the lakes are a smaller, confined geographic area, he explains, it's easier to determine more accurate waste characterization from samples or identify possible sources of polluted effluent than in the vast, open oceans.
This doesn't mean people should stop washing their faces or bodies. Ericksen and others are pleading the case with the cosmetics manufacturers to replace the plastic micro beads with natural exfoliating materials, such as pumice, oatmeal, apricot or walnut husks, that cosmetics companies like Burt's Bees or St. Ives already employ in their products.
Recently, thanks to 5 Gyres Institute's campaign to convince corporations with partners Plastic Soup Foundation and Plastic Free Seas, the Body Shop and L'Oreal announced that they have discontinued using plastic micro beads in their facial and body cleansers. The groups also worked closely with Johnson & Johnson, which just announced that it will cease using micro beads in all of its products. Unilever announced that it will stop using micro beads by 2015. Once the team's paper is published this summer, Ericksen hopes to reconvene with Proctor & Gamble to convince that corporation to reconsider replacing the micro beads in their products. "We have the evidence that the micro plastics do cause harm," he says. "I am hoping we can translate that research into some positive action."