In an article published on October 11, 2019 in Environmental Health News, marine biologist Judith Weis from Rutgers University identifies a set of improvements that she recommends be made by scientists researching microplastic pollution. The first issue the article raises is the inaccuracies in research studies on microplastics in the environment. Using nets to sample them is insufficient, she argues, since long, thin microfibers tend to pass through the nets and “are by far the most abundant type [of microplastic] when whole water samples are analyzed.” Such fibers are reported to be sourced primarily from synthetic clothing that enters wastewater systems through washing machines. Next, Weis points to the importance of sampling at different depths and using chemical analytic equipment rather than counting them under a microscope, which is prone to error.
Many published studies have sought to report which species of marine animals ingest microplastics. Weis writes that at this point it seems like almost every studied animal ingests them, and “it would be of greater interest to find out why they eat them.” She also calls for more studies that investigate the odd-shapes and microfibers common in the environment, rather than using tiny, spherical microplastics that exist much less often. “Future studies of feeding and transfer up the food web should use primarily microfibers, provide real food, and allow time for elimination to occur.”
While existing research has helped to identify the washing machines, fabrics, and washing methods responsible for releasing “the fewest microfibers,” she argues that now “we need chemical engineers and textile scientists to discover how to modify the manufacture of textiles so that they will shed fewer microfibers.” Further research is also needed to understand respiratory exposure of marine animals via the gills, and to also start looking more at soil and terrestrial organisms that are exposed through microplastic pollution in the soil.
“Every week new articles on microplastics are published in scientific journals, but not all of them are original or important.” Weis recommends that “researchers should focus on quality over quantity and use methods that most closely mimic real-world scenarios.” She has also published an article in the journal AIMS Environmental Science discussing the issue in more depth.
Judith Weis (October 11, 2019). “The attention on microplastic pollution is welcomed. But scientists can do better.” Environmental Health News
Witzig, C. et al. (September 3, 2020). “When Good Intentions Go Bad—False Positive Microplastic Detection Caused by Disposable Gloves.” Environmental Science & Technology
Weis, Judith S. (2019). “Improving microplastic research.” AIMS Environmental Science. DOI: 10.3934/environsci.2019.5.326