What’s In The Water? Maybe Plastics You Can’t See

Jake Bransky (at top left) discusses microplastics with others at the 2023 Delaware Estuary Science and Environmental Summit

ATLANTIC CITY NJ – Scientist Jake Bransky admits he doesn’t yet know if what you can’t see will hurt you, but at the very least it sounds unappealing.

What’s In The Water? Maybe Plastics You Can’t See
Degrading litter is part of the microplastics problem

Bransky, an aquatic biologist with the Delaware River Basin Commission, recently spent months studying and reporting on the distribution of microplastics in waters that empty into the Delaware River and its estuary. Think of them as nearly microscopic pieces of trash aimlessly floating in, or on the surface water of creeks, streams, and rivers rolling east toward the Atlantic Ocean.

Microplastics are tiny: about the size of a sesame seed and, officially, less than 5 millimeters in length. In recent years they have been discovered in waterways across the country, raising health concerns among some experts. One of those waterways, among 11 that were regional subjects of Bransky’s research, is the Schuylkill River.

Their sources vary. Microplastics can be the residue of plastic-laden litter that has degraded over time. They can come from clothing materials too, like fleece made from small plastic fibers that escape when laundry water drains into a septic system. Many fragments are so small they cannot be seen by the naked eye, Bransky explains, “so most people don’t even known they’re there.”

He is forthright about what effects, if any, microplastics may have on humans, wildlife, domesticated animals, or the environment. Some researchers have already proclaimed they pose health risks. Others are less sure, or are still gathering information in an attempt to reach conclusions. The field of study is “kind of new on the radar,” Bransky notes, “and we really don’t know a whole lot about it.”

The lack of information, however, motivated him to “get out there, to start understanding what the problem is, how extensive it is, and how we might go about fixing it,” he said. Other organizations also wanted more data. The study, led by Bransky and his colleague, Senior Water Resource Engineer Fanghui Chen, was funded in part by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.

The seeming pervasiveness of microplastics in regional waterways might be considered surprising.

The research shows five different types, “including fibers, fiber bundles, films, fragments, and spheres,” were captured in water samples. While concentrations varied, at least one type or more was detected in all 11 waterways tested: the Assunpink, Neshaminy, Rancocas, Pennypack, Frankford, Mantua, and Brandywine creeks; and the Delaware, Schuylkill, Christina, and Cooper rivers.

From the Schuylkill, samples indicated the presence of only fibers on its surface.

“We know there’s a lot of plastic out there,” Bransky reports, then cautions, “but we don’t know what those actual effects are. We’re still at the level of kind of figuring out what’s out there.”

Assuming that no one wants plastic flotsam in the water in which they bathe, swim, or fish – even if it proves to be more nuisance than harmful – the biggest challenge ahead may be cleaning it away. “It’s an uphill battle,” Bransky says, because every new tide or rainstorm can sweep more debris into the tributaries.

Although “clean-ups help, they’re probably not going to solve the issue,” Bransky suggests. In scenarios cited by earlier studies, he points to evidence that toxins in the environment can bind to microplastics. “If fish or other organisms consume the plastics thinking they’re food, they could get more of these toxins in their system than they normally would.”

Preventing microplastic pollution “is going to take a lot of different efforts,” according to Bransky. “You’ll probably have to get back to the sources, and prevent that plastic from getting into the system.”

The work presented by Bransky and Chen was part of presentations offered during the 2023 Delaware Estuary Science and Environmental Summit. It was held from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1 (2023; Monday through Wednesday) at Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City.

Bransky photo by The Post
Litter on the shore photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash, used under license

Coverage of the 2023 Delaware Estuary Science and Environmental Summit:

What’s In The Water? Maybe Plastics You Can’t See
Research on waterborne microplastics is attracting plenty of scientific attention. One latest study, which involved the Schuylkill and other rivers, suggests they may be pervasive. Their harmful effects, if any, are being examined.

Estuary Summit to Tackle Environmental Challenges
Environmental problems in headlines worldwide also pose threats to the health and well-being of Montgomery, Berks, and Chester County residents. They’ll be examined, and potential answers offered, at an upcoming scientific summit.