When researchers discovered that the Great Lakes are polluted with tiny plastic fragments, likely from consumer personal care products, they also suspected that birds and fish are ingesting the fragments.
But they didn't have hard evidence. Until now.
Sam Mason, the SUNY Fredonia chemistry professor who has led the study of plastics pollution in the Great Lakes, is heading up ongoing research on the theory. And she's found that fish and birds taken from a few of the lakes have plastic fragments in their gastrointestinal systems.
"Every day we're getting more data," she says.
Most of the fish and birds that she's studied have come from Lake Erie. Mason and her students began collecting fish in January by going to local ice fisherman; Mason wound up with a lot of perch, since that's what they were catching.
Through the spring, Mason and her student assistants examined 75 perch and 17 cormorants, a type of water bird. In both cases, a high percentage of the subjects had plastics in their gastrointestinal tracts, Mason says.
Mason and her team are also looking at other species, including shiners and lake trout, some of which have come from other Great Lakes. They plan to keep collecting specimens through the fall, and say that they hope to publish their results sometime between January and March.
While the research may ultimately answer one set of questions, it could also lead to others. For example, researchers already know that some harmful chemicals stick to the surface of the plastic fragments, Mason says. While they suspect that fish and wildlife absorb those chemicals when they ingest the fragments, the issue needs study and confirmation, she says.