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Lake Champlain's Creatures Feed on Diet of Plastic 'Microtrash'

Plastic fibers, apparently from people’s clothing, are accumulating in Lake Champlain fish, plankton and birds, according to a SUNY Plattsburgh professor who is researching “micro” trash ingested by the lake’s aquatic organisms.

The fibers are suspected of introducing harmful substances like heavy metals and hydrocarbons — with which they bond readily — into creatures that ingest them, said Danielle Garneau, who teaches at the university’s Center for Earth and Environmental Science.

Garneau said she and other researchers found accumulations of the fibers in the innards of 14 species of Lake Champlain fish, as well as in zooplankton and cormorants from the lake.

The researchers also found flowing into the lake significant quantities of other tiny plastic particles that pass through Vermont’s wastewater treatment plants, including unidentified tiny gray rubber pieces called nurdles. Garneau said the nurdles’ origin is a mystery but that they’re distributed throughout the lake.

The nurdles and many other forms of plastic microtrash found throughout Lake Champlain appear to pass through most aquatic organisms, or to otherwise become undetectable, unlike the fibers that concentrate in their guts, Garneau said.

These fibers are primarily made of polyester and rayon, suggesting that many of them originated in the performance clothing Vermonters favor for outdoor activities in the species’ habitat, Garneau said.

The fibers seem to “biomagnify” up the food chain, she said, meaning predators accumulate garbage fibers from their prey, and those fibers then end up in whatever eats those predators, and so on.

In addition to potentially introducing harmful chemicals into organisms, the fibers are believed to interfere with their digestion in larger quantities, said Rachael Miller, founder of The Rozalia Project, a Vermont water advocacy group.

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