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Water Today Title October 25, 2021

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Update 2019/9/16

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By Suzanne Forcese

Researchers from the U of T Trash Team and Rochman Lab are presenting a panel discussion on microplastics to learn what we know (and don’t know…yet) about microplastics at the 2019 Science Literacy Week Event. WaterToday spoke with the panel members to find out more about their interest in the topic, their areas of research in terms of plastic pollution and our growing problem with single use plastics.

U of T Trash Team Panel Discussion

Moderator, Susan Debreceni, U of T Outreach Assistant, told WaterToday, “I connected with Dr.Chelsea Rochman who had been working in her Rochman Lab at the U of T with a group of students who formed the U of T’s Trash Team. We formed an outreach aspect of the lab to translate science in a way that is fun and educational.”

Debreceni, who spent the last decade supporting a national network of community volunteers through the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup is now lending her outreach experience locally with the U of T Trash team. “We are showcasing our Trash Team to a wider audience to learn about microplastics. She will be guiding and mentoring the student team that includes PhD students: Alice (Xia) Zhu, Lisa Erdle, Kennedy Bucci and Rachel Giles.

Panelist Alice (Xia) Zhu’s research involves collaborating with the San Francisco Estuary Institute to monitor microplastics in the San Francisco Bay, to model the sources of microplastics entering the Bay and to propose policies to help protect the Bay from further pollution. “My Masters work was on the forces and fate of microplastics,” Zhu told WT. “I collected samples from sediment, surface water, fish, and wastewater treatment plant effluent, as well as storm water runoff to determine how contaminated the Bay was in each area.”

Zhu found that there were varying amounts of contaminants from microplastics in each area of the Bay. Now working on her PhD, Zhu will be concentrating on the fate of microplastics and plans to take her samples from water around the world. “I am very excited to be sharing my work at our panel discussion for Science Literacy Week.”

WT spoke next with panelist Lisa Erdle, who researches the effects of microplastics on animals that are part of a Great Lakes food web. In her work Lisa collaborates with the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) as well as Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to better understand how microfibers – one of the most common types of microplastics – impact fish and invertebrates through physical and chemical processes. In a pilot project, Erdle has partnered with the town of Parry Sound, Ontario. “We are testing for microfibers in 100 households. We have supplied each of the households with filters for their washing machines. Over the next 8 months we will be counting microfibers from those machines to determine the amount of contamination from microfibers that is entering the Great Lakes.”

Erdle has been testing 2 species of fish in Lake Huron and Lake Ontario. “There are microfibers in every fish.” In her ecotoxicology studies, Erdle is looking at the toxicity of different microfibers to different organisms from aquatic insects to fish. “My studies are still ongoing. I am looking at growth and survival. Fatty acids which are important to fish and the humans who eat them are also part of the study. Questions such as the effects on human health, reproduction and the effects of microfiber contaminants on offspring are all part of the research.

Erdle is looking forward to the panel discussion to help bring awareness to the Team’s work. “There is a lot of plastic that we can cut out or at least cut down. We can’t continue this way. We have to take a hard look at our habits.”

Kennedy Bucci’s research focuses on the biological and ecological effects of microplastic pollution in freshwater environments. She is currently collaborating with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change studying the chemical and physical effects of various microplastics on freshwater fish. “My research goals are to look at the effects of microplastics at community levels as well as the effects on species.” Currently, Bucci is doing a meta-analysis study which involves combining all the studies that have been done to date on microplastics and summarizing the data into a final conclusion. “My point is that the literature does not have one conclusive answer. Microplastics are very complicated contaminants.”

Bucci adds that the Trash Team was formed to raise awareness. “We teach waste literacy.” An interesting part of this teaching takes the awareness into the classroom. “We are working with Grade 5 teachers to bring the message to their students. We are designing lesson plans that fit in with the curriculum that teachers can use. We want to start early to get kids thinking about plastics.”

“My goal is to conduct research that will have an effect on policy. If I can show that microplastics have an effect on our environment and our health then perhaps I can motivate policy change.”

Panelist Rachel Giles uses field and laboratory approaches to understand how mixtures of anthropogenic contaminants impact wildlife in urban streams. She is looking at the Greater Toronto Area and North Vietnam. Giles collaborates locally with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and the Sinton Lab to understand salt-laden runoff during the winter months. Internationally, she collaborates with Ocean Conservancy (US) and The Centre for Marine Life Conservation and Community Development (Vietnam) to investigate how litter and inorganic contaminants impact invertebrate communities.

The U of T Trash Team is looking forward to sharing their research, their knowledge and vision with all ages at the September 17 Tiny Plastics Big Problems Event. There will be the opportunity to engage with each panelist in a question and answer period. “It’s all about finding ways to clean up our communities in a fun way and connecting with our watershed,” moderator Susan Debrecini said.


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