Ubiquitous Plastics, Toxic Sponges Extraordinaire

Toxic plastic pollution is filling-up the Great Lakes, European lakes and even subalpine lakes in Europe's famed Alps. This insidious byproduct of petroleum has infiltrated the marine food webs and Earthlings are indeed in harms way.

It wasn't until World War II that polyethylene (plastic single-use disposable bags, dispensable bottles), propylene (bottle caps, fishing gear) and polystyrene (take-away food containers) were invented, and by the late 1960s being mass-produced. By 1979, the production of plastics in the U.S. eclipsed that of steel. Today, globally humans produce 280 million metric tons of plastic, annually.

Plastics are long chains of monomer hydrocarbon molecules. And one of the principle ingredients of all plastics is crude oil. How much? Four percent of the entire world supply or about 3.4 million barrels of oil, each day, are used to make them.

Earth's oceans are choking with plastics. It is incomprehensible that each day an additional 3.5 million pieces of plastic enter our oceans or 18 million metric tons of plastic each year.

Two summers ago researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Superior discovered that Lakes' Superior, Huron and Erie were crammed with plastic and smaller micro pieces of plastics dubbed 'micro-plastics.' This past summer (2013) they confirmed that both Lakes' Michigan and Ontario were also brimming with micro-plastics.

It turns out that the sources are abrasive plastics or micro-beads containing tiny bits of polyethylene plastics used in exfoliants, in face soaps, body washes, toothpastes and other personal care and household products. The particles are so small about the size of one sand grain; they slip through the screens at the wastewater treatment plants and then accumulate en masse in the Great Lakes.

Scientists know that both plastics and micro-plastics act as chemical sponges attracting toxins dissolved in water.

The Great Lakes micro-plastics' are rife with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), bisphenol A (BP As), phalates, dioxins and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), which are all known to disrupt the human endocrine system and cause cancers and birth defects.

Moreover, fish consume these micro-plastics mistaking them for food sources and these toxins are bio-magnified up the food web ultimately poisoning humans who consume fish.

In addition many large cities draw their drinking water directly from the Great Lakes.

The octillion pieces of plastic and micro-plastics in the Great Lakes can also act as a vector for alien species and diseases like the Vibrio bacteria that causes the pandemic cholera.

Sadly, my favorite lake in Switzerland Lake Geneva is also full of plastics. And last week scientists from the University of Bayreuth in Germany found that Italy's largest lake: Lake Garda located high in the spectacular Italian Alps has 1,000 particles of plastic per square meter and 450 pieces of micro-plastics per square meter. Clearly Lake Garda's drinking water has been contaminated. Furthermore, European scientists now suspect that lakes in Bavaria mirror this micro-plastic pollution, which is not only thought to now be European-wide but worldwide.

What can each of us do?

Refuse to use or accept single-use disposable plastic bags.

Refuse to use products that contain plastic ingredients.

Please avoid buying beauty or health products that contain polypropylene or polyethylene.

If each of us joins together and refuses to buy these products that are poisoning life on Earth -- our purchasing power globally will send a clear message to the manufactures and distributors to stop making these deadly micro-plastic sponges. Please help protect our fresh waterways from pernicious petroleum-based plastics - now!

Earth Dr Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist, educator and co-author of Life, The Wonder of it All.