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Microplastics in freshwater systems: a review of the emerging threats, identification of knowledge gaps and prioritisation of research needs

Dafne Eerkes-Medrano, Richard C Thompson, David C Aldridge
Water Research 2015 May 15, 75: 63-82
25746963
Plastic contamination is an increasing environmental problem in marine systems where it has spread globally to even the most remote habitats. Plastic pieces in smaller size scales, microplastics (particles <5 mm), have reached high densities (e.g., 100,000 items per m(3)) in waters and sediments, and are interacting with organisms and the environment in a variety of ways. Early investigations of freshwater systems suggest microplastic presence and interactions are equally as far reaching as are being observed in marine systems. Microplastics are being detected in freshwaters of Europe, North America, and Asia, and the first organismal studies are finding that freshwater fauna across a range of feeding guilds ingest microplastics. Drawing from the marine literature and these initial freshwater studies, we review the issue of microplastics in freshwater systems to summarise current understanding, identify knowledge gaps and suggest future research priorities. Evidence suggests that freshwater systems may share similarities to marine systems in the types of forces that transport microplastics (e.g. surface currents); the prevalence of microplastics (e.g. numerically abundant and ubiquitous); the approaches used for detection, identification and quantification (e.g. density separation, filtration, sieving and infrared spectroscopy); and the potential impacts (e.g. physical damage to organisms that ingest them, chemical transfer of toxicants). Differences between freshwater and marine systems include the closer proximity to point sources in freshwaters, the typically smaller sizes of freshwater systems, and spatial and temporal differences in the mixing/transport of particles by physical forces. These differences between marine and freshwater systems may lead to differences in the type of microplastics present. For example, rivers may show a predictable pattern in microplastic characteristics (size, shape, relative abundance) based on waste sources (e.g. household vs. industrial) adjacent to the river, and distance downstream from a point source. Given that the study of microplastics in freshwaters has only arisen in the last few years, we are still limited in our understanding of 1) their presence and distribution in the environment; 2) their transport pathways and factors that affect distributions; 3) methods for their accurate detection and quantification; 4) the extent and relevance of their impacts on aquatic life. We also do not know how microplastics might transfer from freshwater to terrestrial ecosystems, and we do not know if and how they may affect human health. This is concerning because human populations have a high dependency on freshwaters for drinking water and for food resources. Increasing the level of understanding in these areas is essential if we are to develop appropriate policy and management tools to address this emerging issue.

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