Digital Exclusive: Microplastic pollution found in many waterways in Pennsylvania

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SCRANTON, LACKAWANNA COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — Despite being a relatively new field of study, microplastic pollution is becoming a growing issue affecting the country’s waterways. 

A new study from PennEnvironment, a nonprofit concerned with environmental conservation, examined the plastic pollution within the state’s waters. Microplastics of different types were found in all 53 waterways and over 300 samples taken. 

“Our study took samples from many of Pennsylvania’s best-known waterways from Lake Erie to Pittsburgh’s three rivers from Susquehanna to the Schuylkill and Delaware and dozens of small beloved streams in-between like the Codorus creek, the Lackawanna River and the Conodoguinet and sadly, the results were astounding,” PennEnvironment Conservation Associate Faran Savitz said.

Microplastics are not always visible to the naked eye but they can have lasting effects on the ecosystem.

“It’s really concerning because microplastics not only contain chemicals that are harmful to our health and to the health of wildlife but they can concentrate toxins that are already in the environment, acting as a vector for harmful chemicals,” Savitz said.

Experts say the sheer amount of plastic in the environment means that the average person consumes a credit card’s worth of plastic in a single week. The long-term health effects of plastic within a biological system have not yet been studied.  

Locally, plastic fibers and films were found in the Lackawanna and Susquehanna rivers. Eyewitness News previously discovered a deposit of plastic pellets in a brook within the Pinchot State Forest.

The different types of plastic are defined in the following ways:

1. Fibers: primarily from clothing and textiles;
2. Fragments: primarily from harder plastics or plastic feedstock;
3. Film: primarily from bags and flexible plastic packaging;
4. Beads: primarily from facial scrubs and other cosmetic products.

Now, officials and conservationists are calling for action. 

“It’s something DEP should be paying attention to because it’s a solid waste particulate,” Bernie McGurl, Lackawanna River Conservation Association Executive Director said.

“It may have discharged from the lagoon from a storm event. But it shouldn’t be doing that. So if it did, I think they need to address if it did and why it did and how they can prevent it from happening again,” McGurl said.

Back in January, the DEP told Eyewitness News the spill of plastic pellets is not something they are currently investigating, state representatives say the department needs more funding to allow them the ability to conduct more oversight. 

“Unfortunately with challenged budgets every year, for the last, probably decade, the environment definitely takes the brunt. I think we had one good budget recently where the DEP wasn’t cut or didn’t borrow funds from some other areas to deal with it. They definitely need to be better funded to be able to offer the regulatory review. They’re just outgunned and outnumbered,” State Representative Tim Briggs (D, District 149).

Eyewitness News reached out to the DEP again. A spokesperson for the department says research into the issue is forthcoming but an official date to begin has not yet been said.

“The DEP plans on looking into the issue of the plastics found in Meadow Brook creek in the coming weeks,” Colleen Connolly said. “A site visit is also likely once the snow melt is complete.”

But plastic is far from the only pollutant negatively impacting the area’s waterways.

“We have been looking at some of the historic legacy pollutants in the Lackawanna River. Some of the things we had concerns about in the river originally were metals, mercury from atmosphere deposition from the burning of coal, fossil fuel to the west of us. Many of the lakes and streams in Pennsylvania have fishing advisories on not consuming the fish because of the mercury build-up in the fish’s fatty tissue,” McGurl told us.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, chemical compounds commonly used in engine coolants in the past, have also been found inside of fish in the area. Iron oxide, which comes from coal mine tunnels in the area is also concerning to McGurl.

McGurl says that while there is an answer in legislation, there are many things that individuals can do to lesson their impacts on the world around them. 

“One thing we can do sooner than later is better manage how we produce and utilize plastic. We’re not going to eliminate it, it’s a very useful material for humans to have but, we also need to understand the implications of its use and be responsible for that for ourselves and for our future. We have to have to think about time in large epochs.” 

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