Field Experts Discuss the Monitoring of Microplastics in the Massachusetts Bay

Main image: Loretta Fernandez, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Marine and Environmental Sciences, helped to organize and present the Microplastics Monitoring Workshop on Feb. 28. 

At a full-day workshop, CEE/MES Associate Professor Loretta Fernandez, and members of research organizations, academia, and industry discussed microplastics in local water systems and proposed solutions to prevent potential health impacts as the plastics degrade.

Loretta Fernandez, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Judith Pederson, chairman of the Outfall Monitoring Science Advisory Panel (OMSAP), organized a full-day workshop to discuss issues surrounding microplastics in Massachusetts Bay and propose solutions. Several experts from Northeastern, academia, research organizations, and industry presented on the hazards, potential solutions, and costs associated with microplastics in ocean water. 

Microplastics are bits of plastic less than five millimeters long that come from a range of sources, including larger plastic items that break down over time. Scientists have yet to fully understand the health effects of microplastics in our environment, but it is clear that tiny plastic pieces are everywhere. As these particles degrade from chemical and biological processes, scientists worry they may also release harmful chemicals into the environment. 

“While it is known that microplastics are everywhere, policy changes on the production and use of plastics may prove difficult to achieve until knowledge gaps regarding human and environmental health impacts are filled and technologies for monitoring and treating water are developed,” Fernandez says. 

Outfall Monitoring Science Advisory Panel (OMSAP),  advising the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection on the effects of wastewater released by the Deer Island Treatment Plant on the coastal ocean. 

The workshop addressed the following goals: To build understanding of the impact of Deer Island Treatment Plant on microplastic levels in waters near Boston; identify the sources of microplastics in the Massachusetts Bay and evaluate wastewater treatment plants as a potential source; and, review the current understanding of ecological and human health hazards of microplastics in the coastal ocean. 

Workshop discussions among field experts and policymakers focused on the lack of regulations and monitoring of microplastics polluting our waters, as well as known and potential implications of those plastics on marine life and human health. In-roads to policy changes were addressed, such as raising public awareness of potential health risks posed by microplastics to encourage research funding.  

Ethan Edson, a Northeastern alum who is co-founder and chief executive officer of Ocean Diagnostics, discussed monitoring plastics in the coastal zone, including  biodiversity loss and the importance of policy work. He also reviewed new and in-development microplastics technology. 

Juanita Urban-Rich, associate professor at the School of the Environment, University of Massachusetts Boston, shared about the sources of plastics into Boston Harbor, including  “plastispheres,” where diverse organisms and microbes are found growing on trash buildup in the ocean

Scott Gallagher, president of CoastalOceanVision, and Jim Churchill, oceanographer emeritus at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, presented on the discharge of microplastics from wastewater treatment plants, including the  Deer Island Treatment Plant. They discussed how the discharge of microplastics into the bay is impacted by seasonality and weather.  

Beckett Colson, a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, spoke about monitoring methods for identifying plastics and deep-ocean sensors. “The long-term vision is that microplastics could be monitored continuously,” Colson says. 

Aron Stubbins, professor of environmental science at the College of Science, presented on chemical leaching from microplastics, a growing concern in the scientific community due to the unknown risks. He discussed sunlight-induced chemical decay, how plastics break down in the ocean, and the byproducts that result. 

Bushra Khan, a project scientist at the University of California-Davis, spoke about the effects of micro- and nanoscale plastic exposures in blue mussels, Mytilus edulis. The effects of plastics on these organisms can provide insight into possible effects on other life.  

Jordan Pitt, a scientist at Exponent, presented on differences in the accumulation of nanoscale plastics (which are distinct from microplastics in relation to size and properties) between oral and waterborne exposures using larval zebra fish. She also spoke about how risk is calculated scientifically regarding matters like plastics exposure to animals. 

Additional discussion topics included the importance of advocating for policy change around microplastics, and the urgent need for risk assessment and study of health impacts. High costs of equipment were highlighted as the main barrier to further study. The smaller microplastics are, the more effort, time, and funding it takes to monitor and study them. 



Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering