Montana Public Radio

Microplastic Pollution May Threaten Health Of Montana Rivers, Researchers Say

Jan 23, 2019

Plastics like the fibers in t-shirts and the abrasive beads in body wash are polluting rivers more than previously thought, according to researchers from the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station.

FLBS visiting researcher Xiong Xiong collects samples to look for microplastics in Flathead Lake. He is using methods similar to his Yangtze River research project to determine microplastic concentrations in the Flathead Lake watershed.
Credit Heather Fraley / FLBS

Rivers carry up to four million tons of plastic each year. Until recently, the common knowledge was that most, if not all, of that plastic pollution was flushed to the ocean.

But Chinese researcher Xiong Xiong says microscopic plastic debris is polluting rivers more than previously thought, especially around large cities and even in sediments in the river bottom. He says his findings could help managers locate and address the source of the pollution to protect human and ecosystem health.

"Our study indicated that the microplastics retained in the Yangtzi River might leave the risk of microplastics to the ecosystem and human health in the Yangtzi River catchment itself."

Xiong’s study of microplastics in China’s Yangtzi River was recently published in Science of the Total Environment.

While much of Xiong’s research looks at microplastics in remote, high-elevation water systems in China, he’s is now turning his attention to plastic pollution in Flathead Lake as a visiting researcher at UM’s Biological Station. Last summer, Xiong collected samples at 12 sites along Flathead Lake.

"I have already found microplastics in these samples."

Xiong says he found a concentration of suspect plastic micro-debris around Polson and a concentration of suspect microscopic plastic fibers at the lake’s northern inlet. He’ll need lab testing to confirm what he saw under the microscope, but Xiong says what he saw is enough to know Montanans face the threat of microplastics here as people do in China.

Flathead County stopped accepting plastic recycling last February after China announced a ban on trash imports. County officials say ever since, there hasn’t been a market for the valley’s plastic waste, which was often contaminated. Valley Recycling, which contracts with the county to divert waste from the landfill, hopes to begin accepting clear plastic bottles and milk jugs at its Highway 2 location within the next few months.