The applicability of reflectance micro-Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy for the detection of synthetic microplastics in marine sediments

Jesse P Harrison, Jesús J Ojeda, María E Romero-González
Science of the Total Environment 2012 February 1, 416: 455-63
Synthetic microplastics (≤5-mm fragments) are globally distributed contaminants within coastal sediments that may transport organic pollutants and additives into food webs. Although micro-Fourier-transform infrared (micro-FT-IR) spectroscopy represents an ideal method for detecting microplastics in sediments, this technique lacks a standardized operating protocol. Herein, an optimized method for the micro-FT-IR analysis of microplastics in vacuum-filtered sediment retentates was developed. Reflectance micro-FT-IR analyses of polyethylene (PE) were compared with attenuated total reflectance FT-IR (ATR-FT-IR) measurements. Molecular mapping as a precursor to the imaging of microplastics was explored in the presence and absence of 150-μm PE fragments, added to sediment at concentrations of 10, 100, 500 and 1000ppm. Subsequently, polymer spectra were assessed across plastic-spiked sediments from fifteen offshore sites. While all spectra obtained of evenly shaped plastics were typical to PE, reflectance micro-FT-IR measurements of irregularly shaped materials must account for refractive error. Additionally, we provide the first evidence that mapping successfully detects microplastics without their visual selection for characterization, despite this technique relying on spectra from small and spatially separated locations. Flotation of microplastics from sediments only enabled a fragment recovery rate of 61 (±31 S.D.) %. However, mapping 3-mm(2) areas (within 47-mm filters) detected PE at spiking concentrations of 100ppm and above, displaying 69 (±12 S.D.) % of the fragments in these locations. Additionally, mapping detected a potential PE fragment in a non-spiked retentate. These data have important implications for research into the imaging of microplastics. Specifically, the sensitivity and spatial resolution of the present protocol may be improved by visualizing the entire filter with high-throughput detection techniques (e.g., focal plane array-based imaging). Additionally, since micro-FT-IR analyses depend on methods of sample collection, our results emphasize the urgency of developing efficient and reproducible techniques to separate microplastics from sediments.

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