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  • By Gina T. Reilly

Sampling finds microplastics contamination in Palau

Samples collected by environmental researchers showed presence of microplastic particles in Palau water, according to the Palau International Coral Reef Center.

“Microplastics are a growing environmental concern. As plastic particles that have degraded from larger plastics, microplastics can sometimes be so small that they are invisible to the naked eye,” PICRC said. “Given their size, these chemical toxins present risks to our marine ecosystems as they are easily introduced into our food-web systems.”

PICRC is collaborating with the Scientific Center of Monaco to assess potential environmental risks that derive from plastic pollution. The project is funded by Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation.

While the analysis of the microplastic samples is still not complete, researchers said the finalized results of study “will be of great significance as we continue to assess the extent at which plastic is negatively impacting our environment.”

CSM researchers Dr. Vanessa Bednars and Dr. Eric Béraud visited Palau in March and worked with PICRC researchers to collect samples within five meters from the surface of the water. At the same time, sediments were collected from several beaches.

Samples were collected from five different sites in Palau—one on the east coast, one on the west coast, and three within Koror State.

“After filtering the samples, only the finest sediments were taken back to Monaco to be analyzed for the presence of microplastics. Preliminary findings show presence of microplastic particles in all samples collected,” PICRC said.

In August, the World Health Organization called for a further assessment of microplastics in the environment and their potential impacts on human health.

CSM and PICRC researchers visited Palau in March to collect samples

within five meters from the surface of the water. Photo courtesy of PICRC

WHO issued the call following the release of an analysis of current research related to microplastics in drinking-water, which found no evidence so far that this poses a risk to humans.

"According to the analysis, which summarizes the latest knowledge on microplastics in drinking-water, microplastics larger than 150 micrometres are not likely to be absorbed in the human body and uptake of smaller particles is expected to be limited. Absorption and distribution of very small microplastic particles including in the nano size range may, however, be higher, although the data is extremely limited," the study said.

But WHO warned against complacence, saying further research is needed to obtain a more accurate assessment of exposure to microplastics and their potential impacts on human health.

“We urgently need to know more about the health impact of microplastics because they are everywhere - including in our drinking-water,” says Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Public Health, Environment and Social Determinants of Health, at WHO. “Based on the limited information we have, microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. But we need to find out more. We also need to stop the rise in plastic pollution worldwide.”

WHO recommends drinking-water suppliers and regulators prioritize removing microbial pathogens and chemicals that are known risks to human health, such as those causing deadly diarrhoeal diseases. This has a double advantage: wastewater and drinking-water treatment systems that treat faecal content and chemicals are also effective in removing microplastics.

"Wastewater treatment can remove more than 90 percent of microplastics from wastewater, with the highest removal coming from tertiary treatment such as filtration. Conventional drinking-water treatment can remove particles smaller than a micrometre. A significant proportion of the global population currently does not benefit from adequate water and sewage treatment. By addressing the problem of human exposure to faecally contaminated water, communities can simultaneously address the concern related to microplastics," WHO said.

On Sept. 9, PICRC researcher, Evelyn Ikelau Otto, left for a three week-long trip to Monaco. During her visit to Monaco, researcher Otto worked with Dr. Vanessa Bednars and Dr. Sarah Choyke, Associate Research Chemist at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in a series of laboratory experiments with Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).

PFOS are highly pollutant fluorosurfactants present in fire retardants including carpets, textiles and plastics. The study involved the exposure of coral fragments to different concentrations of PFOS to determine the amount of substance absorbed by the corals.

At the same time, after being exposed to PFOS, the corals were reinstated to their normal conditions to determine whether or not they were able to expel the chemical from their body.

PICRC said it “continues its commitment to perform research, raise awareness and find solutions to the plastic pollution crisis that our world is facing.


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