This summer, students from Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) have the opportunity to study New Haven Harbor and Long Island Sound while working on a research project with Dr. Vincent Breslin, Professor and Co-Chair of the Department of the Environment, Geography, and Marine Sciences. This will be Dr. Breslin’s second summer out on the water, examining the presence and impact of plastic microbeads on Connecticut’s coastline.
Every day these microbeads—the tiny particles often found in facial scrubs and exfoliating cosmetics—make their way down our drains. Colorful and bountiful, they serve as an eye-opening illustration of the impact of human behavior on the environment as they slip through wastewater treatment plants and wash into our waterways, where they are ingested by marine life.
According to Dr. Breslin, the danger of plastic microbeads is that “plastics don’t biodegrade in coastal waters and tend to absorb chemical contaminants onto the surfaces of the plastic. These little microbeads may be accumulating contaminants like pesticides and chlorinated hydrocarbons, and they’re mistaken as food by fish and birds.”
Cody Edson examines a plankton tow sample for evidence of microbeads while Lara Bracci records the plankton tow coordinates (latitude and longitude) on a cruise in New Haven Harbor in June 2016.
Once the microbeads reach the water, the plastic and attached pollutants can enter the food chain and be passed all the way up to our dinner plates, as we essentially poison ourselves with our own soap. Growing public concern over the situation led to press coverage, which inspired Dr. Breslin to investigate further. “About a year ago in March, I read an article in the New Haven Register about the legislature considering banning plastic microbeads,” he says. “I was aware of the issue and knew of the problems involved, but one of the statements made in the article was that although they hadn’t measured the microbeads in Long Island Sound, they were confident they were there and having an impact. That’s a reasonable assumption to make, but I thought to myself that it would be much better if we actually had some proof that the microbeads were there.”
Last summer, Dr. Breslin and his students conducted trawls with plankton nets to look for the evidence in New Haven Harbor. “We actually didn’t have to look very hard to find them,” he says. “They are out there in the Sound, so we were able to at least document the presence of the microbeads, but once you document the presence of the microbeads, then that opens up a lot of other questions. For instance, do the concentrations of these microbeads vary along the harbors on the Connecticut shoreline?”
Dr. Breslin has been asking these sorts of questions for a long time. “I grew up in Enfield, Connecticut, so I was about as far away from the coast as you could get, but I’ve always had an interest in the coastline of Connecticut and had a few great teachers in high school that really inspired me to pursue oceanography and marine biology. From there, I went to Maine and got my undergraduate degree from the University of New England, which at the time was one of the few universities that offered a degree in marine biology.”
He continued his studies at Stony Brook University and the Florida Institute of Technology, before returning to Connecticut. “Right here in New Haven, the University is only a couple miles away from New Haven Harbor, so I’ve had a great opportunity to really pursue my interests along the Connecticut shoreline for the last 15-20 years.”
Early on, Dr. Breslin recognized the dangers of microbeads. “I did some work with biodegradable plastics in a marine environment at Stony Brook University in a center called the Waste Reduction Institute. I did this work with one of the faculty there, working with polymers and degradable polymers in particular.”
With the existence of microbeads in the Harbor and Sound no longer simply an assumption, this summer Dr. Breslin and his students will be conducting lab and field research in order to quantify the level of contamination. Once Dr. Breslin and his students collect the samples, they match them to products pulled directly from stores. “We go and buy some of these consumer products off of the shelf and analyze the properties of the microbeads they contain, so that when we pull up a plankton tow net, we can match them directly with the beads that come out of those products. We see the same size yellow and blue and green and red beads and so on.”
While the Connecticut legislature did pass a ban on the sale of products containing microbeads, Dr. Breslin still considers them a significant threat. “The problem is that there are so many of these products out in the marketplace, a lot of retailers are still selling products with microbeads, and the ban won’t really take effect until January 1, 2018. So there are still two more years where manufacturers will be able to produce these products and consumers will be able to buy them. Even after the fact, consumers will still have them in their bathrooms and be using the products.”
SCSU student Peter Litwin is set to deploy a plankton net used to collect microbeads during a cruise in New Haven Harbor in June 2015.
Once the products are banned from the shelves, Dr. Breslin and his students will have a unique opportunity to study the ban’s effectiveness. “Continuing this sampling beyond 2018 will give us a really good idea [as] to what extent these bans are effective and to what extent do they result in a decrease in these beads in Long Island Sound.”
Studies have shown that wastewater treatment plants are able to filter up to 99.9% of microbeads, yet this still leaves a significant volume of pollution. “Every day, consumers wash down an estimated 800 trillion microbeads,” says Dr. Breslin. “Every day. Even if just a small fraction of that escapes the wastewater treatment plant filters, that’s a huge number.”
Whatever fraction does escape won’t go away anytime soon. Dr. Breslin believes that microbeads will ultimately “settle out into the sediment and will become part of the sediment record. They won’t biodegrade or deteriorate. This may become a marker 100 or 200 years from now, where scientists will take a sediment core and examine 2014–2016 and say, ‘Yeah, here are the microbeads—here’s 2016.’”