Dr. Melissa Duhaime, an assistant research scientist in ecology and evolutionary biology, studies the impact of microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes. Some personal care products contain tiny plastic particles, which get washed down drains and are too small to be filtered out at water treatment plants before flowing into our waterways.

Recently, Michigan became the latest state to introduce legislation that would ban products containing microbeads.

Duhaime and her team spent several weeks last summer on a research boat in the Great Lakes skimming for microplastics – which means any plastic smaller than five millimeters, according to WMUK, a National Public Radio Station from Western Michigan University. “What really hit home for us was every time we pulled that net into the boat, that we found plastic in every single sample,” said Duhaime.

So far, the data suggests the Great Lakes have the highest concentration of microplastics in the world, according to Duhaime.

Because these tiny particles float in the water, they can be mistaken for fish food. According to U-M scientists, even small amounts of plastic have been shown to stunt growth and reproduction in aquatic life. What’s more worrisome is what microplastics carry – bacteria and persistent bioaccumulative toxins or PBTs.

PBTs are old leftover pollutants that become more toxic as they move up the food chain. Duhaime said usually these pollutants attach themselves to sediment and sink to the bottom.

Even if all the Great Lakes states ban microbeads in personal care products, Duhaime said we will still have a long way to go to keep the lakes safe from plastic pollutants. Microbeads are only a small portion of all the microplastics her team is finding in the lakes.

“What they’re finding in these fish stomachs are ingested fibers and filaments and we’re hypothesizing that these are most likely coming from plastics in our clothing – especially fleece as well as nylon and polyester.” Duhaime guesses that more than 90 percent of the clothing we all wear contains some bits of plastic.”

The Michigan microbead ban, State Senate Bill 158, awaits a decision by the State Senate’s Government Operation Committee.

Listen to the podcast interviews on WKAR and WMUK

Watch for a future feature on Duhaime’s research in the Detroit Free Press’ children’s Yak section and an upcoming appearance on a morning radio show from Lansing.

Melissa Duhaime