Pollution from plastic pool toys in the wild

A new trend of glitter and microbeaded pool toys is complicating the already pervasive environmental problem of microplastic pollution.

University of California, Davis, scientists studying plastic pollution are encouraging beachgoers to take care to leave natural waterways as clean or cleaner than they found them this summer by discouraging beach use of all types of plastic reduce and leave pool toys full of microbeads and glitter at home.

“A Microplastic Bomb”

Pool toys are intended for use in pools where, in the event of breakage, damage is limited to that pool. But such toys are often taken to lakes, oceans, rivers and other bodies of water. When they burst, their glistening, pearly contents spill out over the water, polluting the aquatic and human environment.

Alison Toy, manager of the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Sciences Center (TERC) educational program, encountered one such scene at Lake Tahoe’s Moon Dunes Beach in early July. Thousands of tiny balls of foam floated across the surface. She was quick to share the damage and the offending pool toy on her Instagram account, spurring a cleanup and regional media interest.

“It was like a microplastic bomb exploded on the beach,” said Katie Senft, Toy’s colleague, a TERC field researcher who deals with microplastics. “It was heartbreaking to see polythene balls all over our beautiful shoreline.”

Senft is leading a research project to determine the whereabouts of microplastics on Lake Tahoe. It includes trawling for plastics and examining the bellies of fish and mussels to understand the impact on the food chain. A microplastic is about the size of a grain of rice or smaller. Senft found fragments of toys, bottles, diapers, bags of chips, and more.

Katie Senft of the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center collects sand samples at Incline Beach in August 2019 for lab analysis for microplastics. (Joe Proudman/UC Davis)

Anything that glitters

ONE Study 2015 from UC Davis estimated that 8 trillion microbeads alone are emitted into US waters each day. Pool floats full of microbeads and glitter that can bang against rocks and rip open add a disruptive layer.

“Glitter is impossible to clean in your house,” Senft said. “Imagine trying to clean it from a lake or beach.”

Jenessa Gjeltema, assistant professor of zoological medicine at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, conducts plastic analysis while working to improve methodology to more accurately assess the health impacts of plastics in the environment. With a background in the practice of veterinary medicine for wildlife, she is interested in the interconnected impacts of plastics on wildlife, people and the environment.

“Think about how many particles you could release in a simple teaspoon of glitter,” Gjetelema said. “What should possibly only be used for a few minutes can then remain in the environment for hundreds or thousands of years. Glitter may seem like a wonderfully magical moment, but it’s a moment that lingers on for so long, and we’re only at the tip of the iceberg to see what impact that will have.”

Gjetelema notes that some of the known impacts on wildlife and ecosystems include:

  • entanglements. While one can think of tangled sea turtles, tiny plankton can also become entangled in microplastics.
  • Microbeads are often the size and shape of a fish egg, and wildlife can and do mistake them for food.
  • Plastics contain a variety of potentially harmful chemicals that are released into the environment over time.
  • Plastics can serve as a means of transport for hazardous substances. For example, plastic can absorb pollutants from the environment and transfer them to animals, such as mussels that filter on a lake or seabed.

Jackelyn Lang, a technician in Jenessa Gjetelema’s lab at UC Davis, uses Raman spectroscopy to analyze microplastics. The technique uses a laser that reflects and scatters light, creating a rainbow that, when measured, produces a chemical signature of the structure of the particle under study. (Jenessa Gjeltema/UC Davis)

plastic and pathogens

Karen Shapiro, an infectious disease expert at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, studies the interactions between microplastic pollution and pathogens. Her team incubates microfibers and microbeads with specific parasites, including Toxoplasma gondii, a key threat to sea ottersHawaiian monk seals, and Hector and Māui dolphins.

Their preliminary work shows that zoonotic pathogens that affect humans and humans can attach themselves to microplastics and thus become plastic hitchhikers for potentially long distances.

“The ability of pathogens to interact with organic matter was known — one could argue that it’s even natural,” Shapiro said. “But never before have we just dumped all this anthropogenic pollution, which can also act as a vector for parasite spread.”

4 things to do

  1. Keep pools full of microbeads and glitter away from natural watercourses and reduce plastic consumption in general. If you’re taking a pool float to the beach, choose something that won’t tear easily and make sure it returns home with you.
  2. Be a conscious consumer and consider the life cycle of plastic. Your day at the beach could have a lasting impact on the environment.
  3. Be dress conscious. Microfibers from clothing – and washing machines – often end up in water bodies. Buying clothing made from natural fibers like cotton instead of synthetic materials can reduce the amount of microfibers entering lakes, rivers and oceans. Doing less laundry can also reduce microfiber pollution on waterways and in your household chores.
  4. Think reusable. Bringing your own reusable bag when shopping, using reusable water bottles, and choosing reusable storage containers over single-use plastic bags continue to be more sustainable options.

“Anything a family or individual can do to reduce household plastic shopping and turnover will help,” Shapiro said.

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Mike Hunter

Mike is the owner of the local pool shop. He's been in the business for over 20 years and knows everything there is to know about pools. He's always happy to help his customers with whatever they need, whether it's advice on pool maintenance or choosing the right chemicals. He's also a bit of a pool expert, and is always happy to share his knowledge with anyone who's interested.

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