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UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA MASTER'S STUDENT FINDS DISTURBING LEVELS OF MICROPLASTICS IN MANITOBA WATERS
By Suzanne Forcese
Microplastics have been detected in freshwater ecosystems worldwide so it should come as no surprise that Lake Winnipeg also has been shown to have microplastic contamination. What is surprising though is that the surface concentrations in Lake Winnipeg are far greater than those found in Lake Huron and Lake Superior; and are comparable to those found in Lake Erie – a lake with ten times the population density.
Sarah Warrack is IISD-ELA’s Outreach and Education Officer. She is also currently completing a Master’s degree in the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba.
WaterToday spoke with Warrack about her microplastic research and her coordination, content development, and delivery of education at The International Institute for Sustainable Development-Experimental Lakes Area.
“I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” Warrack told WT. “I started out in Education and taught early years but that was not the challenge I was looking for.” Teaching positions in China, Thailand and the United Kingdom did not satisfy the itch she was longing to
scratch until she came upon a poster at the University of Manitoba’s Environment and Geography Department. The poster was featuring Dr. Mark Hanson and whole-lake ecosystem research. “I knew then what I wanted to do.”
Now pursuing her master’s degree along the science path, “I thought being immersed in field research would help answer the question of my future direction.” With Dr. Hanson’s guidance, Warrack immersed herself in the whole-lake ecosystem research that takes place at IISD-ELA and learned about monitoring techniques. The focus of her thesis is on assessing settling rates of different types of microplastics in freshwater systems, and how biological processes help them to settle and break down.
Warrack was an author and key player in a 2017 publication (Science and Engineering Research PMUSER) which highlights peer-reviewed research by undergraduate students preparing students for future careers in science related fields.
To better understand potential sources of microplastics in Lake Winnipeg, two inflowing tributaries , the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, and the lake outflow of the Nelson River were sampled for microplastics. To determine the role of wastewater treatment plants, microplastic densities (upstream and downstream) of wastewater treatment plants in the City of Winnipeg were compared. The bioavailability of microplastics to fishes was also examined.
“We found microplastics in the gastrointestinal tracts of two fish species collected from the Red and Assiniboine Rivers which were comparable to those from the Great Lakes tributaries but were elevated 4 to 6 times relative to concentrations observed in the Nelson, suggesting significant losses to settling in Lake Winnipeg.”
This significant difference in upstream and downstream concentrations suggests wastewater treatment plants are a point source of microplastic pollution in surface waters.
“The majority of microplastics were fibres (89%). Those fibres are coming from our clothing,” Warrack noted. “Because most of our clothing is synthetic (plastic derived) every time we wash our clothes microfibers are released in the wastewater.” Treatment plants are not equipped to capture this type of waste.
“The long-range transport of microplastics in rivers is a major contributor to the input and output of microplastics within their watersheds.”
“The Red and Assiniboine Rivers are contributing 400 million microplastics annually to Lake Winnipeg,” Warrack said.
Warrack’s research looks into the settling rates and sedimentation processes of microplastics. Outdoor wetland mesocosms has been a method she has used to understand these rates and the potential influence of biofilm formation. “We also have to look at climate. For instance what happens when the lake freezes.”
Warrack’s research has been an eye-opener for her. “We have to reduce our plastic waste. We have to look at alternatives to plastic and synthetic clothing.”
Warrack also notes that because plastics are so much a part of our lives most of us are not even aware of the consequences of our plastic use. “For instance, I gave a talk to a group of avid gardeners who are environmentally conscious. Yet, they were unaware of the fact that so much of the material they use in their gardening is using black-colored plastics. Dark colored plastic cannot be recycled because the conveyor belt in re-cycling plants is black and does not distinguish the plastics from the belt.”
Ever the teacher, Warrack is committed to spreading the message of indiscriminate plastic use. Her strong bond with the environment began in childhood, growing up on Lake Winnipeg. “I want kids to understand their impact on the environment.” Using her own research experiences to step into the role of scientist/teacher she is promoting science in her outreach activities at IISD-ELA.
The Citizen Science Program focuses on the fact that science affects everyone in their daily lives. “I go into classrooms and make presentations that involve students with their own experiments.” One such experiment involves each student working with their own individual lake (a rubbermaid container) and pouring oil into their ‘lake’. The objective is that students can make the connection between oil spills on freshwater ecosystems.
“We also have classroom tours for all grade levels at ELA in the summer as well a different courses on site that high school students can use for credit.”
“There is also the possibility for university students and their research work. I really like to encourage researchers to come out into the field at ELA. It’s a great way to find out if you like this type of research.”
Warrack particularly enjoys her outreach with First Nations students, in workshops that help them to discover what they want to do in their own communities. “We have a fall feast where we invite the elders and community members to share their traditional knowledge. It’s a more holistic way to connect with our water.”
Warrack’s outreach at IISD-ELA is not limited to fair weather activities. “We also have a 12 day field course in collaboration with Lakehead University -- in winter -- that studies the biology and ecology of terrestrial and freshwater organisms as well as the physical and chemical characteristics of these organisms during the winter.”
Because of the unique nature of the IISD-ELA facility and the whole-ecosystem approach to freshwater science as well as the outreach program’s mission to inspire the next generation of research scientists, Sarah Warrack says, “I don’t think I will ever leave.” Nor will she ever leave her research. “I will go on to pursue a PhD on a water-related topic and continue to create solutions for the environment.”
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