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Microplastics are found in all waters, quantities in aquatic organisms and fish vary

  • Environment and natural resources

Press release 

Finnish Environment Institute SYKE and University of Eastern Finland

Microplastics are found in all water systems and in fish, bivalve molluscs and benthic fauna. Microplastics cause stress to the aquatic organisms and may expose them to harmful substances. These were the results of a recently completed project that studied the behaviour of microscopic plastic pollution in water systems and developed research methods focusing on microplastics. The new results and methods will be utilised in, for example, monitoring and conservation in the Baltic Sea and in research on the health impacts of microplastics. The project’s concluding seminar can be viewed online on 24 August 2020 at 12:00–14:30 (In Finnish).

Microplastics were found in all of the studied groups of organisms. The largest number of microplastics were found in blue mussels that filter water in order to feed. Fewer quantities were found in the most common benthic fauna, that is, Baltic clam, Marenzelleria polychaetes and chironomid larvae. Microplastics most likely end up in aquatic organisms when they feed. Exposure is affected by the habitat, prey and feeding method.

Major differences were found in the quantities of microplastics in fish, both regionally and among fish species. In the study, only a very small quantity of plastics was found in Baltic herring, Baltic sprat and three-spined stickleback in the open sea. Microplastics were remarkably more frequent or abundant in European perch, common bleak and three-spined stickleback on the Finnish coast as well as in European perch and vendace in Lake Kallavesi. The method developed over the course of the project improved the accuracy of analysis, enabling the identification of smaller particles than before.

Microplastics are found everywhere in water and aquatic organisms

“Field studies indicate that microplastics are found everywhere, that is, in the surface layers of water, deeper in the water column, on the sea bed and in fish, bivalve molluscs and benthic fauna. The smaller microplastics we study, the higher concentrations we observe. This is because plastics constantly fragment into smaller particles in the environment,” explains Maiju Lehtiniemi, Research Professor at the Finnish Environment Institute.

In surface waters, microplastics were found similar concentrations both in Finland’s coastal waters and in Lake Kallavesi close to the city of Kuopio. This is probably due to the fact that the sources of microplastics ending up in water systems are mostly located on land. In the Baltic Sea, stratification seems to affect the concentrations of microplastics in the different layers of water.

The sediment at the bottom of the Baltic Sea contains higher concentrations of microplastics than the water in the area. Relatively high local concentrations of microplastic particles were observed in coastal sediments. The quantities reach the same levels as in Norway’s coastal sediments and in the southern Baltic Sea, for example.

“Microplastics end up in water systems from land especially via flowing waters. One of the most important pathways is storm water, that is, rain and melt water from built-up areas. Research results indicate that storm water in urban environments contains microplastics and that the temporal and local variation in the quantity of microplastics is significant. In the future, more research is required particularly on microplastics emissions from transport,” says Julia Talvitie, Researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute.

Microplastics cause stress to aquatic organisms

Laboratory tests indicated that plastic and recycled rubber causes stress in plankton and Baltic clam. Small planktonic crustaceans died or had higher stress levels when exposed to rubber used in car tyres and frozen vegetable bags (light PE) containing food residues. Harmful substances, such as metals and PAHs, were observed in Baltic clam exposed to car tyre rubber.

Microplastics in the environment primarily consist of the most used types of plastic

Spectroscopic analysis methods for examining the plastic types of particles found in environmental samples were developed in the project. “The most common types of plastic found in the samples were the same in both the Baltic Sea and Lake Kallavesi as well as in fish and benthic fauna,” says Arto Koistinen, Director of SIB Labs and the University of Eastern Finland’s sub-project. Polyethylene (PE) was often the most abundant type of plastic in the samples. This is understandable as the various forms of polyethylene are the world’s most used raw materials of plastic. Polypropylene (PP) was also found in all samples examined. Another type of plastic commonly found in the samples was polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PP and PET are plastics widely used in consumer products, including packaging.

The sources of microplastics were examined in a previous report by the Finnish Environment Institute (press release 24 March 2020). 

In environmental samples, fibres were more common than particles. Because plastic fibres and particles are found everywhere in our living environment, sampling and laboratory work require special care and quality assurance to ensure the reliability of results.

Microplastics in Finnish waters (MIF) project (2016–2020)

The research project funded by the Academy of Finland combined extensive field studies, experimental food web research and advanced material identification methods. The aim of the project was to develop methods and produce national information on the behaviour of microscopic plastic waste in aquatic environments and to assess possible adverse impacts. The project was implemented jointly by the Finnish Environment Institute and the University of Eastern Finland.

Over the course of the project, the methods of microplastics research have improved significantly both in Finland and internationally, and the information on microplastic concentrations and microplastic materials has become considerably more accurate. The project has played an important role in gathering and sharing information on microplastics.

The Finnish Environment Institute will continue conducting research on the impacts of microplastics on marine ecosystems, and researchers at the University of Eastern Finland will assess the impact of microplastics on human health.

Further information:

Research professor, leader of the project Maiju Lehtiniemi, Finnish Environment Institute SYKE, tel. +358 295 251 356, firstname.surname@ymparisto.fi

Director of SIB Labs, Director of the University of Eastern Finland's sub-project Arto Koistinen, University of Eastern Finland tel. +358 44 716 3260, firstname.lastname@uef.fi

Leading researcher Outi Setälä, Finnish Environment Institute SYKE, tel. +358 295 251 635, firstname.surname@ymparisto.fi

Communication specialist Katri Haatainen, Finnish Environment Institute SYKE, tel. +358 295 251 135, firstname.surname@ymparisto.fi

Links

Seminar In Finnish on 24 August 2020 at 12:00 - 14:30Mikromuovit Suomen vesistöissä – mahdollisten uhkien selvitys -päätösseminaari

Project page includes several links to articles In EnglishMikromuovit Suomen vesistöissä – mahdollisten uhkien selvitys (MIF) 

In the photo: Microplastic fragments in a microscope © Photo: Maiju Lehtiniemi SYKE