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Blue Hill Researchers Look at Impact of Plastic Microfibers in Ocean 

Several local towns are looking into whether or not to ban plastic shopping bags.

It comes as new research out of Blue Hill is shedding light on the dangers of these bags making their way into the ocean.

“There’s a thousand different ways it can end up in the ocean,” said Madelyn Woods, a researcher with the Marine and Environmental Research Institute.

Items like plastic bags can pose a risk of choking or entanglement to sea life.

But there’s another danger that’s less visible.

The Marine and Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill is looking into the prevalence of tiny plastic particles in the water.

“The thing that keeps bags floating on the surface is their shape and air bubbles in them. Once they become waterlogged they start to sink,” said Woods. “And when they break up into pieces, they collect more toxins on them.”

Toxins like polyethylene and flame retardants such as BPA.

We’re here about half a mile off the coast of Blue Hill where researchers are about to take samples of the water to see how many plastic particles there are.

They drop this cylinder into the water several times-each time it fills with water at a different depth.

“So we do surface samples, five meters and 15 meters,” said Woods.

Liters full of ocean water are then offloaded from the boat and transported back here to the lab for analysis.

“This is a 4.5 micron filter. So anything larger than that is getting trapped on that and sucked out of the water,” said Woods. “And that’s what we put under the scope.”

That’s where they look for any particles that look unnatural.

“So once I find a segment that I believe is a fragment or filiment of microplastic, I heat a needle and use that to see if the heat will warp the plastic,” said Elizabeth Dunbar, a research intern.

Over the past four years, research here has shown about 17 plastic fibers per liter in the water collected from Blue Hill Bay.

The plastic has also made its way into oysters, mussels, and fish.

“We do know that plastics are toxic to marine life–especially lower forms of marine life. We don’t know how toxic the plastic in seafood is for people that consume the seafood. We are looking for answers to that question,” said Susan Shaw, director and founder of the Institute.

In the meantime?

“The solution is to reduce plastic use, reuse plastics and recycle,” said Shaw.