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Microplastic pollution affecting Europe’s lakes, warn University of Cambridge researchers




A study of 67 lakes across Europe has shown that those in areas of greater human activity have much more microplastic pollution.

The concentration of microparticles - plastics and man-made fibres - was up to four times higher in areas where people were more active, and it doubled in areas with lower forest cover.

Microfibres and plastic film from Lake Maggiore, Italy. Picture: Jérémy Fonvielle (51433505)
Microfibres and plastic film from Lake Maggiore, Italy. Picture: Jérémy Fonvielle (51433505)

Dr Andrew Tanentzap in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences led the study, during which the surface waters of lakes from Croatia to Norway, spanning 30 degrees of latitude and multiple environments, were trawled between April and September 2019.

“Almost all attention on plastic pollution focuses on the oceans, but we have discovered that Europe's lakes - our drinking water sources – are similarly polluted by microscopic plastics and man-made fibres,” said Dr Tanentzap.

Plastic microparticles are known to be ingested by a range of animals, including large vertebrates, and deteriorate water quality.

Reisafjorden, Norway. Picture: Samuel Cottingham (51433507)
Reisafjorden, Norway. Picture: Samuel Cottingham (51433507)

But until now, we have had little understanding of the impact of human activity on the presence of microparticles in lakes.

Comparing the microparticle concentrations found to published data on microplastic concentrations from the world’s rivers and oceans suggests freshwaters are potential hotspots of pollution.

Microfibres alongside zooplankton from Lake Maggiore, Italy. Picture: Jérémy Fonvielle (51433503)
Microfibres alongside zooplankton from Lake Maggiore, Italy. Picture: Jérémy Fonvielle (51433503)

Water quality and surrounding land use could be used to accurately predict microparticle concentrations in the lakes, the researchers found.

They also discovered that there were five times fewer microparticles in lakes with more active microorganisms, suggesting some naturally occurring species may help remove microparticle pollution.

Measuring water clarity in Lake Maggiore, Italy. Picture: Sophie Guillaume (51433501)
Measuring water clarity in Lake Maggiore, Italy. Picture: Sophie Guillaume (51433501)

However, future studies are needed to isolate microorganisms from the natural environment and test their ability to degrade microplastics and fibres.

“Our study provides valuable evidence to help prioritise monitoring and mitigation of anthropogenic debris in the world’s lakes,” said Dr Tanentzap.

Lillesjön, Sweden. Picture: Jeremy Fonvielle (51433499)
Lillesjön, Sweden. Picture: Jeremy Fonvielle (51433499)

“As anthropogenic debris continues to pollute the environment, our data will help contextualise future work. Our models can inform control and remediation efforts, by identifying hotspots of microparticle pollution based on surrounding land use and water quality.”

The researchers warn that they may also have underestimated the plastic concentrations in the lakes, as they did not include plastic particles greater than 5mm, which can still harm the environment.

Testing lake water quality. Picture: Samuel Woodman (51433532)
Testing lake water quality. Picture: Samuel Woodman (51433532)

This research, funded by the European Research Council and the Isaac Newton Trust, was a collaboration with The Ocean Cleanup Foundation and researchers in the university’s Department of Chemistry. It was published in PLOS Biology.

Sampling Lake Vrana, Croatia. Picture: Samuel Cottingham (51433530)
Sampling Lake Vrana, Croatia. Picture: Samuel Cottingham (51433530)

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