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Are Microplastics Polluting Montana Waters?


Peoples’ love of polar fleece and yoga pants could be contributing microplastic pollution into the water supply.

A Bozeman-based group will launch a sampling project in September to find out just how much of this pollutant is in the Gallatin River.

News that micro-beads found in some soaps and toothpastes are finding their way into the tummies of fish in the Great Lakes has led some manufacturers to remove them from their products.

But there’s another source of microplastic pollution and it’s coming from your washing machine.

"We’re finding a really large number of what the plastics in what our samples are are microfibers," says Jenna Walenga, the microplastics program manager for the Bozeman-based group Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. "So tiny synthetic fibers that are washing off of your laundry every time you wash a polar fleece or synthetic leggings."

She points to a recent research paper by ecologist Mark Browne. He sampled wastewater from washing machines. Browne estimated about 1,900 individual fibers can be shed by just one synthetic garment.

"We are heavily reliant on plastics in our lives" Walenga says, "and when people really start to pay attention to where it’s coming from in their own lives they can really begin to do simple changes to affect that. In terms of your laundry at this point in time your best bet is to wash those clothing as little as possible."

Walenga says fish and other organisms can eat these micro-plastics, but more importantly some scientists suggest micro-plastics attract and can soak up toxins and pass them along the food chain.

She says this is not just a problem for the world’s oceans or major rivers; in an initial sampling around Bozeman found a high level of microplastics along the Gallatin River.

The watershed begins in Yellowstone National Park and is a headwater for the Missouri River.

ACS is looking for up to 50 volunteers to sample various stretches of the 394-mile long Gallatin watershed for a year to document the amount of microplastic pollution. It’s part of a worldwide initiative.

She says ACS has developed protocols, which can be found on their website, if others want to submit their own water samples for testing.

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