New microplastics research hub gets U.S. funding

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Microplastics is the focus of a new research hub backed by $7.3 million in federal funding. 

A collaboration between the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology, the center will examine the lifecycle of microplastics in the Great Lakes freshwater ecosystem, human exposure and health impact. 

The Lake Ontario Center for Microplastics and Human Health in a Changing Environment received support from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Science Foundation under the federal Oceans and Human Health program

“The center will seek to develop a better understanding of the interactions between plastic pollution, the Great Lakes environment, and human health in both current and projected real-world conditions,” says Katrina Korfmacher, a professor of environmental medicine at the UR Medical Center and co-director of the new center. 

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that have made their way into the environment. Fragments that measure less than 5 millimeters in length, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the European Chemicals Agency, these particles are ubiquitous. Since they are found in food, water, dust and air, humans are estimated to  ingest thousands of microplastics particles a year.

Korfmacher hopes the center’s research will spur a new understanding of the environmental and human health aspects of microplastics. She also expects research to “engage new groups in strategies to reduce the source of waste and mitigate exposure, and provide a model for similar approaches in other communities.”

Christy Tyler, professor in the Thomas H. Gosnell School of Life Sciences at RIT and co-director of the center, views it as an opportunity for researchers to coalesce around a global crisis.

“We plan to combine research on the quantity and characteristics of plastic in the places where people are most likely to encounter it, with research on how these particles impact our health,” Tyler says. “And as a result, we’ll be able to come up with a more holistic understanding of the potential harm of plastic pollution, and how we can develop targeted strategies to minimize it.”

Often, microplastics are difficult to detect and mitigate, and little is known about their long-term impact on the human body. Plastic pollution has been rising, impacting water sources like the Great Lakes. Add climate change to the mix and experts believe that shifts in water levels, temperature, acidity and other markers worsen the risk from microplastics.  

Studies at the center are expected to delve into the relationship between environmental shifts and the movement and characteristics of microplastics in Lake Ontario, their interaction with other contaminants, and their impact on immune response in model biological systems.

The goal, officials say, is to develop and promote solutions that inform future research, community actions, and policy changes that will lessen the health effects associated with microplastics.

The center builds on projects already underway at RIT and UR. One will focus on understanding the input, transport, and ecological risk of plastic pollution in the Lake Ontario basin. Tyler will lead an interdisciplinary team to study how warmer weather and more severe storms will increase the delivery of post-consumer plastic to Lake Ontario. The breakdown of plastic is likely to change with shifts in water temperature to form microplastics, and change the way these tiny particles interact with organisms in the environment. Researchers at the center will create advanced models to better predict and understand these dynamics and the risk to the environment and health, officials say.

Lisa DeLouise’s project will use nanomembrane technologies to identify the presence and concentration of ultrafine microplastics in the water and air in the Lake Ontario ecosystem. An associate professor in the UR departments of dermatology and biomedical engineering, DeLouise will study the mode and transport of these particles and their toxicology in collaboration with Alison Elder at UR’s environmental medicine department.

Other areas of study include the use of animal models to learn how waterborne particles enter, move around and accumulate in the body, and the body’s response to them. Researchers will also collect and monitor water and airborne samples for microplastics.

For Rochester, this center is a testament to decades of work in the field of environmental research, including medicine. The center will work with partners to both conduct community science and promote environmental health literacy, officials say.

“The scope and complexity of research undertaken by the center has the potential to transform our understanding of the growing health threat posed by microplastics, and Rochester is uniquely positioned to answer these important scientific questions,” says Steve Dewhurst, UR’s  vice president for research. “The collective and complementary experience, expertise, and resources both at the University of Rochester and RIT make science of this scale possible. The ability to study microplastics throughout its journey in the environment and the impact on biological systems will reveal new insights and help create new models to mitigate plastic pollution.”  

Ryne Raffaelle, vice president for Research at RIT, also draws attention to local researchers working collaboratively to answer questions of global significance. 

“How microplastics, combined with climate change, impact the ways in which we live, and overall human health is something we need to investigate,” he says. “This new center will be key to understanding, and hopefully mitigating, the convolution of these environmental impacts and their potential deleterious effects.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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