Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Environment

4 billion particles of tiny plastics pollute Tampa Bay, study finds

Now scientists will determine the impact on the animals that live in Florida’s largest estuary.
Published Sep. 12, 2019
Updated Sep. 27, 2019

To the naked eye, the waters of Tampa Bay look clean and inviting. But a new study says the bay, Florida’s largest estuary, is awash in tiny bits of plastic.

The study, published Thursday in the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, found about four billion particles of microplastics in the bay. Microplastics are each a 1/8 of an inch or smaller — tiny fragments of plastic bags or bottles, or threads from polyester clothing, discarded fishing line and other artificially manufactured jetsam.

Next up: a study that looks at how those bits of microplastics might be affecting manatees and other marine creatures that make their homes in the bay, according to Kinsley McEachern, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg marine sciences graduate student who led the study.

“Harmful chemicals and toxic organic pollutants like pesticides stick to them,” she said. And because the chemicals on microplastics can mimic hormones, "they can cause reproduction difficulties. It could have impacts throughout the entire food chain.”

So far, she said, there have been no studies on the impact on humans.

This is the first study to try to gauge just how badly polluted the bay has become from microplastics. McEachern got the idea for it several years ago when she heard Eckerd College professor David Hastings talking about his discovery that microplastics were turning up in samples his students were taking throughout the bay.

RELATED STORY: Microplastics imperil marine life in Tampa Bay

McEachern wanted to quantify how widespread the pollution problem was, something that has never been done before in Tampa Bay.

Using a grant from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and boats provided by the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, she and other biologists spent 14 months checking 24 different sampling spots around the bay.

The samples went through chemical and other tests to verify that what they were seeing under their microscopes was indeed plastic.

“We found the distribution was pretty ubiquitous,” she said.

The study found an average of four pieces of microplastic per gallon of water at all sites, and more than 600 pieces of microplastic per pound of dry sediment around the bay.

RELATED STORY: What are microplastics? An expert breaks it down.

Hastings praised McEachern’s study for taking a look at the pollution problem in three dimensions rather than just skimming the bay’s surface as studies in some other places have done.

The microplastics cascade into the bay from stormwater and, in the case of fabrics, from the washing machines that feed into municipal sewer treatment plants that eventually dump into the bay.

One possible source for microplastics that would be unique to Tampa Bay: the beads given out at the Gasparilla parade. During Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful’s Gasparilla cleanup day in 2015, volunteers collected more than 1,600 strands of discarded plastic beads.

RELATED STORY: Discarded beads not good for Tampa Bay.

The bits of plastic are of a size similar to plankton. Oysters, clams and mussels in the bay filter seawater to consume tiny bits of food, and thus wind up collecting the microplastics too, which then begin being passed through the food chain.

Biologists have been raising concerns about microplastics because they have been found in every ocean in the world, including the Arctic. The bits of plastic can collect and even concentrate toxins that can sicken any marine life that consumes the material. A 2010 study by Tokyo University and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution tested plastic pieces from 140 beaches in 40 countries. Researchers found chemical toxins in every sample.

For now, the only solution to this pollution problem is prevention, Hastings said. He encourages people to cut back on using throwaway plastic items.

“Something you use for 30 seconds could cause consequences that last a lifetime,” McEachern agreed.











ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Flooding from an October king tide in Miami Shores fills streets, sidewalks and driveways at its peak. [Miami Herald]
    And it could lose up to 35 percent of its value by 2050, according to a new report.
  2. Two babirusa pigs are shown at Lowry Park Zoo in this photo from 1995. A Tampa Bay couple is accused of distributing remnants from exotic animal species, including a babirusa skill. [Tampa Bay Times]
    Novita Indah and Larry Malugin sold more than 3,000 items made from the animals over a period of more than five years, federal officials said.
  3. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.,, center, speaks as fellow candidates businessman Tom Steyer, from left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. listen, Tuesday during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) [PATRICK SEMANSKY  |  AP]
    The candidates’ proposals reveal differences in how they plan to approach the issue.
  4. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumps new sand from Central Florida along the Miami Beach shoreline near 65th Collins Avenue on Monday. [MATIAS J. OCNER  |  Miami Herald]
    The idea is to build a buffer between the condos and the rising seas.
  5. Draped against the St. Petersburg skyline on Tuesday evening on January 14, 2020, the Bella Vita is visible as it docks in Port St. Pete. The yacht is nearly 250 feet long and costs about $650,000 to charter for a week in the winter, according to broker Moran Yacht and Ship. It can accommodate 12 passengers between its six staterooms and six decks, and a staff of 22. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE  |  Times]
    Meet the Bella Vita, a yacht almost too luxurious to believe.
  6. A 350-pound Warsaw grouper was caught off the southwest coast of Florida late last month, according to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. [Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission]
    Biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute’s Age & Growth Lab estimate the age of the fish at 50 years old.
  7. A family rides their motorcycle through clouds of ash as they evacuate to safer grounds as Taal volcano in Tagaytay, Cavite province, southern Philippines on Monday. Red-hot lava is gushing from the volcano after a sudden eruption of ash and steam that forced residents to flee and shut down Manila’s airport, offices and schools. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila) [AARON FAVILA  |  AP]
    Clouds of ash from forced the shutdown of the Philippines’ main airport, with more than 500 flights canceled.
  8. Store owners and family help remove supplies from a hardware store that partially collapsed after an earthquake struck Guanica, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday. [CARLOS GIUSTI  |  AP]
    Money is being accepted through a Wesley Chapel restaurant and a GoFundMe page by Somos Puerto Rico Tampa and the Course of Action Foundation.
  9. In this Thursday, photo, John Mash, right, a fire operations supervisor for the Ministry of Natural Resources in Ontario, Canada, works in the situation room at the Rural Fire Service office in Moruya, Australia. The U.S., Canada and New Zealand have sent hundreds of firefighters to Australia to help local crews battle its deadly wildfires. The firefighters have come as part of a reciprocal deal which has previously seen Australians posted in North America. Many of the firefighters have specialized skills such as managing air operations or logistics. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft) [RICK RYCROFT  |  AP]
    More than 250 firefighters from the U.S. and nearly 100 from Canada have arrived or will soon help to battle the fires that have killed at least 26 people.
  10. The U.S. Mint revealed its latest design of its America the Beautiful Quarter program featuring the Samoan fruit bat in honor of the National Park of American Samoa. [U.S. Mint] [U.S. Mint]
    The U.S. Mint has revealed the newest designs for its annual America the Beautiful Quarters program, and you’ll see bats on the back of the coin as early as February 3.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement