Research indicates high levels of microplastics in WNC waters

Jason Love got interested in microplastics by way of mussels. A wildlife biologist by education and training, he’d long been interested in the reasons behind the decline of Southern Appalachian mussel species, and in particular that of the federally endangered Appalachian elktoe. He was interested while working in his previous position as site manager for Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, and he’s interested now in his new position as associate director of the Highlands Biological Station.

“It used to have a stronghold in the Little Tennessee River, but beginning around 2004/2005 the populations just crashed, and they’re possibility extirpated from the Little Tennessee,” Love said. “That motivated me to understand what’s going on.”

In summer 2018, he had a few interns who needed a project to work on. Love saw that, while literature was starting to show that microplastics were showing up everywhere from the Arctic to the oceans, no research had yet been published examining the situation in Southeastern streams. So, with the students’ help, Love set about investigating the issue.

“We need to start thinking about plastic not just as trash that’s unsightly, but as low-level toxic waste that needs to be dealt with,” he said.

The team collected samples from the Little Tennessee, the Tuckasegee River and Cartoogechaye Creek. “We expected to find microplastics, particularly in the streams that had wastewater treatment plants, which is both the Little Tennessee and the Tuckasegee, but Cartoogechaye did not have a wastewater treatment plant,” said Love.

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