Microplastics in Tennessee River raise health, environmental concerns

  A cubic meter of Tennessee River water contains about 17,000 tiny plastic particles, and scientists’ increasing concern about the health effects of those microplastics when ingested by humans has added urgency to recent cleanup efforts.

Tennessee Riverkeeper last week organized a cleanup effort at Dry Branch Creek, a heavily littered waterway that connects to the Tennessee River, and a dozen volunteers collected almost a ton of plastic and other materials.

“One of the sources of the microplastic pollution is plastic litter,” said David Whiteside, founder of the nonprofit organization. “This is pollution injury by a thousand cuts. With these cleanups, it’s easy to heal a small cut here and there. We can visibly see the results of cleaning that litter, and that’s satisfying.”

The environmental hazards of microplastics in the ocean have been studied for years, but a German scientist focused attention on the Tennessee River in 2017 when he swam the length of the river, collecting water samples as he went.

The results from Professor Andreas Fath’s samples, released in October, were unexpected. While pharmaceuticals, heavy metals and other harmful chemicals were detected, they were generally at low levels consistent with a 652-mile river without a densely populated watershed. The surprise was the level of microplastics, defined as plastic particles smaller in diameter than 5 millimeters, or smaller than a grain of rice.

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