When Lorena Rios-Mendoza starting telling people she believed the same microplastics that are in the oceans also were likely plaguing the Great Lakes, her colleagues thought she was crazy.
"Plastic is everywhere," said Rios-Mendoza, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. "And people told me, 'No, the Great Lakes are so clean. Lake Superior? Forget it.' But no, we found it."
Not only did researchers find microplastics in the Great Lakes, but they found them at alarming rates, she said. The concentrations of microplastics that Rios-Mendoza and her team found were double that of concentrations found in previous years in the Atlantic Ocean, she said.
"In the ocean, it's very difficult to point out what country or where is the source of the plastic because it is so big," she said. "But with Lake Erie, it's a smaller and shallow lake."
In 2012, Rios-Mendoza took samples from lakes Erie, Superior and Huron. This year she took samples from lakes Michigan, Huron and St. Clair. Preliminary results from her August trip show more of the same.
Rios-Mendoza said while studying the plastics, she noticed that many were perfectly rounded — about one millimeter each — and some were colored blue, green or white. That might mean they are plastics from beauty products that made their way through treatment systems into the lakes.
"Fish could easily confuse the plastic with food," she said. "And if it contains a toxic compound, then my question is what is going to happen with the fish? Will the problem stop with the fish? Or when we eat the fish, will the problem continue with us? At this point we have more questions than answers."
Tests are still needed to confirm if the plastics are indeed polyethylene or polypropylene found in some beauty products, such as face scrubs.
"These are human-created pollutants that are finding their way into the lakes," said Geoff Peach, coastal resources manager for the Canadian-based Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation. "We took a blind eye when it was in the ocean, but once it got into the Great Lakes, it got personal, I guess."
He said the issue is extremely important, and he is concerned that the microplastics could make their way back through water treatment facilities into drinking water for coastal communities.
"Plastic is something that we all use. And so how do we contain it so doesn't get out in the environment? [To make sure] it's contained and used just as it was designed for?" he said. "Certainly beaches and fresh water lakes were not what plastics were designed for."
Rios-Mendoza plans more research, including buying various types of beauty products to see if she can determine definitively if that is the source of the microplastics. She would also like to raise money for more sample collections, including going to Lake Ontario, and return to the other four lakes during different times of the year to see if the concentration of plastics shifts.
Meanwhile, Rios-Mendoza is very blunt about her opposition to plastics in beauty products.
"Before you buy a product, and read the label," she said. "And if it has polyethylene or polypropylene, don't buy it. This is the only way we can put pressure on the companies and they can return to the natural product. They use the plastic because it's cheap."
Education will be the key next step in the situation, Peach said.
"It's an issue that needs the cooperation of every single person in the Great Lakes basin to correct the issue," he said. "There's a big education process that is going to be needed here."