Courtesy Mark RyanOver the past couple years, Science Buzz has posted several stories (here and here) about the humongous patches of garbage and plastic debris found floating in the world's oceans. It's a serious problem and one that should raise red flags for anyone concerned with the Earth's environment. But even more troubling is the recent news that plastic particles have now been found in all five of the Great Lakes lining the border of the USA and Canada. Unlike the large globs of plastic clogging areas of the ocean, the plastics polluting the Great Lakes are microscopic particles detectable only in a microscope. But they're no less disturbing.
A team of researchers led by Dr. Sherri “Sam” Mason, professor of chemistry at SUNY-Fredonia has been gathering water samples and reported finding high concentrations of plastic particles in the chain of freshwater lakes. One of the researchers involved is environmental chemist Lorena Rios-Mendoza from University of Wisconsin-Superior. Both she and Mason have studied the Great Trash Island (aka Trashlantis) in the Pacific Ocean but has now turned their attention to the Great Lakes.
Most of the plastic found in the water is visible only under a microscope, but has been found in all five of the Great Lakes, both in the water column, and in lake sediment. The amount of micro-plastic varies between lakes with Lake Erie - the shallowest and smallest by water volume - containing the largest ratio and Lake Superior - the largest and most voluminous - a much smaller ratio. But it doesn't matter; the point is that we're polluting some of our important sources of fresh water with plastic.
It's thought that cosmetics with could one of the sources, since the industry relies heavily on using micro-beads in its products. These tiny plastic particles used on our faces, skin, and teeth, eventually get washed off into the water supply where they're too small to get filtered out. But cosmetics certainly aren't the only source.
Courtesy tedxgp2Think of the ungodly amount of plastic material we use and discard every year. Surprisingly, only about five percent of the bags, bottles, cups, electronics, etc. get recycled; most plastic trash ends up in landfills where it slowly degrades and eventually finds its way into the world's favorite garbage dump: the oceans.
“We have no idea how long some of these plastics stay in the ocean, could be more than 40 years,” Rios-Mendoza said. She also worries if organic toxins in the water can attach themselves to the tiny plastic particles, and end up in the food chain. In this regard, Rios-Mendoza has been sampling Great Lake fish to see if such toxic particles are present in their guts.
It's important to remember that only 3 percent of the world's water is freshwater and the five Great Lakes - Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Erie - together contain 20 percent of that freshwater. That's a large portion of a relatively scarce and essential life ingredient. Last fall, I posted an interesting graphic that illustrates nicely Earth's total water supply versus fresh water and puts things in perspective.
Courtesy Mark RyanRios-Mendoza and Mason have been collaborating with a research and education group called 5Gyres Institute that monitors and studies garbage patches found in five subtropical gyres in the world's oceans. Rio-Mendoza presented a preliminary study of their work on the Great Lakes at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society. The team's future studies involve pinpointing the sources of plastic pollution and acquiring a better understanding of how plastics degrade in the environment.
"We all need to become aware of how much plastic we use in our lives and avoid using single-use products. Don’t buy water in plastic bottles or cosmetic products with micro beads. Bring re-usable bags to the store with you. Simple things like this make a big difference, but it’s also important to keep talking about this issue and raising awareness about how it affects the Great Lakes and the world’s oceans.” --- Dr. Sherri Mason“
By the way, here in Minnesota, and situated at the western tip of Lake Superior, the city of Duluth was recently proclaimed to have the best tasting drinking water in the state. By best-tasting, I'm assuming they mean it has no taste whatsoever since water is described as a colorless, tasteless liquid. Whatever the case, I always thought Duluth's drinking water was the best while growing up there (my grandparents lived in a Twin Cities' suburb and I never liked the taste of their softener-treated water).
In another water-related story, it's estimated that life on Earth can survive for at least another 1.75 billion years until we move out of the habitable zone and our oceans (and other water sources) will evaporate in the increased heat. So it's probably best that we take care of what water we have - it needs to sustain us for a long time.
Courtesy Leigha HortonEver been on a beach (and I’m talking a real beach that rests alongside an ocean, not some piddly lakeshore)…AHEM, as I was saying - ever been on a beach when someone nearby sighs aloud, “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink?”
I have, and have always found the thought astounding. How is it that our world can have so much water and somehow not figure out how to make it drinkable via efficient means, and at the same time saddle up a populace with something as advanced as the iPhone?
And just so you know, over 70% of the Earth is water, and of that 70%, over 96% of it is salt water from our oceans. Salt water that is totally unsuitable for drinking. (Who’s thirsty? MEEEEE!)
Now don’t get me wrong, desalination methods exist in the world – they’re just not very efficient yet, using boatloads of energy for very little final, useable product.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, High-Tech Cures for Water Shortages, NanoH20, Inc. is harnessing the power of reverse osmosis using nanoparticles. Turns out these nanoparticles “attract water and reject salts and other particles that can clog other membranes, reducing the energy needed to push water through the membrane.” That’s pretty awesome. California, with its entire west coast on the Pacific Ocean, could stop fighting with Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada over rights to the Colorado River water.
And since NanoH20 is based in southern California, which presently gets most of its drinking water piped in from the dwindling Colorado River, I trust them in taking this whole useable-water-thing seriously.
Courtesy laszlo-photo (Flickr)
"So what?" C'mon, peeps! This is cool: eight teams from around the world are competing to launch businesses that will bring clean energy and water to India. Right here! In our backyard! You can watch the business plan presentations yourself this Monday, May 17th at the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment (Seminar Room 380, VoTech Building, 1954 Buford Avenue, St. Paul, MN). Check out the press release or Acara website for more details.
One of the greatest threats to public health these days, especially in developing countries, is poor water quality. Everyone needs water to live, right? But if that water isn’t clean, it can lead to a ton of health problems. Some estimates figure that 6,000 people die each day due to health complications from drinking poor water.
Solving big problems usually takes big solutions. But a Swiss weaving company have developed an easy, low-cost way to get around the problems of drinking impure water. It’s developed a device called LifeStraw.
It’s a portable water purifying system. People can wear a LifeStraw around their neck and use it to safely slurp up surface water from just about any natural location. The ten-inch-long tube contains a series of fabric filters inside. Those filters can screen out nearly all micro organisms that carry water-borne diseases, including diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid and choler. The filters are fine enough to screen out particles that are up to 15 micorns small.
The makers of LifeStraw say their product can last for about a year until it needs to be replaced, processing about 700 liters of water in its life time. That averages out to about two liters a day, the size of a large soda pop bottle.
There is some minimal maintenance required with a LifeStraw. Users occasionally need to blow out their last gulp of water plus some air through the straw to clean out the filters and any silt or mud that may get drawn into the straw.
What’s really remarkable about this is the price tag for LifeStraw. Each device costs $3. But you’re not going to find them on the shelves of Wal-Mart, Target or a grocery store.
LifeStraw’s parent company, Vestergaard Frandsen sells LifeStraws in bulk quantities to charitable groups who then get them to needy areas of the world through service projects. Rotary Clubs in Great Britain are among the biggest participants in the LifeStraw distribution effort.
More information on how to get involved in distributing LifeStraws is available at the organization’s website: www.lifestraw.com