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Dubuque students study river creatures, plastic pollution

December 23, 2018
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University of Dubuque senior Amanda Magana pours 30 percent filtered hydrogen peroxide into a cylinder while Addy Schober watches at a lab on campus Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. Magana and Schober are studying the impact of microplastics on freshwater organisms.(Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald via AP)

DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — Amanda Magana and her classmates dropped digestive glands and gills from mussels into beakers of hydrogen peroxide recently at the University of Dubuque.

Bubbles rose to the surface of the liquid as it ate away at the tissues. The students then carried the beakers to an incubator, where the hydrogen peroxide would break down the mussel parts over 48 hours.

The process allows the students to test for tiny particles of plastic taken up by the mollusks in the Mississippi River.

“There’s a process to making sure that we get everything,” said Magana, a university senior, as she carried beakers of dissolved mussel organs back to the lab.

The students’ work is part of ongoing research at the university into the presence of microplastics in the Mississippi River and the mussels that live there.

Scientists worldwide are still looking into the extent of pollution stemming from the tiny bits of plastic. However, the university’s research could help build understanding about how the tiny plastics affect the environment as a whole, said Adam Hoffman, an associate professor of environmental chemistry and adviser for the project.

“If we are impacting those (mussels) in a bad way, that’s going to have a ripple effect on the rest of the ecosystem,” he told the Telegraph Herald .

Over the summer, Magana took water samples from the Mississippi River at Massey Marina south of Dubuque and from the north branch of the Chicago River. In both samples, she discovered what appear to be microplastics, though she will conduct further testing to confirm.

Now, she and her fellow students are examining the gills and digestive systems of mussels collected this fall from Massey Marina to determine whether they contain microplastics. So far, that appears to be the case.

Addy Schober, another university senior, is examining both current and older mussel samples to determine how microplastics have impacted them over time.

“I thought it was interesting that something like this could be affecting our water,” she said.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, microplastics are bits of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters in length.

They can be created by the degradation of larger pieces of plastic, though tiny bits of plastic also have been manufactured for use in different products.

Research into microplastics and their impacts still is emerging as a field of study, according to the NOAA. However, researchers have been examining microplastics pollution and to what extent it affects the environment.

A report last year from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization states that aquatic organisms have been found to have ingested microplastics, though adverse effects of the plastics have only been seen at high concentrations in laboratory conditions.

While research into whether and what health effects might be associated with microplastics still is ongoing, research does suggest that the synthetic materials are good at absorbing chemicals that could be harmful, Hoffman said.

So far, findings have shown that phosphorus can bind to microplastics. Excess amounts of the mineral in water can lead to algae bloom.

“If they’re getting into the aquatic life which we eventually may consume, who knows what it’ll do,” Magana said.

Mussels serve as good indicators of water quality, Hoffman said. While he wasn’t aware of any research showing that microplastics negatively impact mussels, they could be indicative of what is in the water, he said.

He also noted that while much research has been done into how microplastics affect ocean life, fewer people have looked into the issue along the Mississippi River.

The research also could help Hoffman and his students understand how microplastics affect the transportation of phosphorus down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico.

“If mussels are taking up microplastics, certainly other organisms are as well,” Hoffman said.

Schober said she hopes the project brings awareness to the effects that plastics can have on the environment.

“This just shows the impact of human life on Earth catching up to us,” she said.

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Information from: Telegraph Herald, http://www.thonline.com

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