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Scientists sample Hudson River, NYC waterways in study on microplastics & microbeads

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Ph.D. student Ye Li collects samples in New York Harbor July 6 in a study of microplastic pollution. (Leah Rae / Riverkeeper)
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Ph.D. student Ye Li collects samples in New York Harbor July 6 in a study of microplastic pollution. (Photos: Leah Rae / Riverkeeper)

Riverkeeper is proud to assist new research into microplastic pollution – where it is, where it goes, and how toxic it is – in the waters around New York City.

Scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory are conducting a pilot study and testing their methods in research into microbeads and other bits of plastic, along with the contaminants they carry. Geochemist Beizhan Yan, oceanographer Joaquim Goes, Ph.D. student Ye Li and Barnard College student Shelly Lim gathered samples of water and sediment from Riverkeeper’s patrol boat as part of the study.

“Everyone is talking about how much plastic is in the water,” said John Lipscomb, Riverkeeper’s patrol boat captain. “Here, we are trying to discover how that microplastic pollution is affecting the life in the water; how it affects the food web.”

Read about the project in State of the Planet, published by the Earth Institute at Columbia University:

New York’s Waterways Are Swimming in Plastic Microbeads

Barnard College student Shelly Lim helps gather water samples with geochemist Beizhan Yan July 6.

Kevin Krajick describes our trip south on the Hudson, through the rocking waves from the ferry wakes in New York Harbor, around the tip of Manhattan and into the severely polluted Newtown Creek, stopping at seven locations:

“They dipped a fine-mesh plankton net into the waves and filtered the water in it into a quart jar for later analysis. They dropped a little steam-shovel-type scoop to grab a sample of the mucky bottom. Goes was also testing a new flowmeter that sucks surface water through tubing into an analyzer that sorts out floating particles by shape, displaying them in real time on a screen. Amid the irregular bits of junk, many with the telltale spherical shape of microbeads flashed by on the screen.”

“A few weeks after the cruise, inspections by microscope showed that water from each of the boat’s seven stops were loaded with plastics. Many appeared to be eroded bits and fibers of larger items—remains of carpets, clothing, food packaging, paints—but among them were also apparent microbeads.

“Plastics from Newtown Creek carried heavy doses of atlenol, a drug used to treat high blood pressure. (‘People in that neighborhood must be under a lot of stress,’ quipped Goes. ‘Soon maybe we’ll learn other things about them.’) Testing has only begun; Goes says further analysis will probably turn up other pollutants sticking to plastics, and allow the team to estimate the quantity of microbeads versus other plastics.”

Stay tuned for more about the research and what we learn.

Visit this page to find out how you can help us work toward a Trash Free Hudson through advocacy, prevention, community education and stewardship.

Researchers conduct research on microbeads and microplastics aboard Riverkeeper’s patrol boat on Newtown Creek in NYC.

Riverkeeper’s Captain John Lipscomb and Ph.D. student Ye Li collect a sediment sample from New York Harbor.

Joaquim I Goes, Research Professor at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, collects samples along the Hudson River.

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