Tampa Bay's Water Is Home to More Than 4 Billion Bits of Microplastic, Study Finds

Photo: AP

There are at least 4 billion bits of microplastic floating in Tampa Bay, according to a new study published in Marine Pollution Bulletin.

It can be hard to quantify just how much pollution there is in any given place, since it’s so omnipresent. But the study by Florida researchers appears to provide a horrifying, if round, figure for this specific harbor.

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Researchers at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and Eckerd College collected samples of water and sentiment from Tampa Bay over a 14-month span, sometimes using a net typically employed to catch the tiniest plankton. Since they found an average of one particle of microplastic per every liter, they calculated that the entire bay has at least 4 billion particles. And within the bay’s sediment, there might be at least 3 billion particles. Even these numbers might be an underestimate, the authors cautioned, given that they didn’t collect samples from the water’s surface, which may contain more buoyant plastic like styrofoam.

Scientists have found microplastics practically everywhere they’ve looked, even in places as remote as the Arctic. But the researchers say theirs is the first to specifically look at Tampa Bay.

“This is a very important study in that it is the first for our region and shows the extent of the problem,” said study Henry Alegria, an environmental scientist at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, in a statement released by the university. “It also provides a vital baseline on total numbers and distribution. This is important for management plans moving forward to show whether future actions and policies are effective at reducing these particles in our environment.”

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Microplastics are defined as any bit of plastic 5 millimeters long or smaller. Though many microplastics are formed when larger hunks of plastic start breaking down, the most common source in the study was from fibers that had likely come from fishing lines, nets, and synthetic clothes. The clothing fibers, Alergia and his team suspect, had likely come from laundry water that passed through wastewater facilities into the bay.

At this point, we’re still not completely sure how dangerous to human health these plastics really are for the typical person exposed to them. But we do strongly suspect these pollutants are doing serious damage to marine life. And right now, there’s simply no realistic way to mitigate the risks of existing microplastics in our water and even air.

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“These plastics will remain in the bay, the gulf and ocean for more than a lifetime, while we use most plastic bags and bottles for less than an hour,” said lead author David Hastings, a professor of marine science, in the release. “Although it is tempting to clean up the mess, it is not feasible to remove these particles from the water column or separate them out from sediments.”

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About the author

Ed Cara

Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere