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Team at Virginia Tech uncovering details about microplastic pollution in Chesapeake Bay

Austin Gray stands by Stroubles Creek on the Virginia Tech Blacksburg campus.
Steven Mackay

Virginia Tech
Austin Gray stands by Stroubles Creek on the Virginia Tech Blacksburg campus.

For decades, plastic pollution has ended up in rivers and the ocean. Scientists are just beginning to better understand how microplastics affect our health and the environment. More and more research is proving that microplastics build up in our bodies—it shows up in blood, saliva, even breastmilk.

“Environmental health and human health are all intertwined in my eyes,” said Austin Gray, an assistant professor of aquatic ecology at Virginia Tech.

“And how we affect the environment ultimately has an effect on us. And plastic pollution is an example of that,” said Gray.

This summer, Gray is working with a group of students to analyze sediment from the Chesapeake Bay to find out when microplastics began entering the water, and how extensive pollution is.

His past research has found microplastics in drinking water in Blacksburg, most likely from PVC pipes and other sources. His research has also traced areas near the Duck Pond, where microplastics from tires have ended up in water near roadways.

He’s also done studies on bottled water, which typically contains higher levels of microplastic than faucet water.

“So we have an abundance of waste going to the environment that we’re now being exposed to through our water, through our air, and through our food.”

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have any limits on how much is safe to consume. Scientists really don’t know that yet.

Gray said, in his opinion, it can feel confusing for consumers to weigh how much plastic they use. He thinks the responsibility for removing and limiting microplastics shouldn’t fall to consumers to figure out. He said engineers, policy makers and the plastic industry should work collaboratively.

“All these people should be coming together to have this conversation about how do we solve this problem,” Gray said. “But it also starts with placing the blame where it belongs, which is the industry, rather than the individual.”

Updated: June 19, 2024 at 4:02 PM EDT
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.
Roxy Todd is Radio IQ's New River Valley Bureau Chief.
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