Scientists launch major study of microplastics pollution in San Francisco Bay

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A coalition of scientists is cruising San Francisco Bay with a strange looking net to scoop up tiny bits of plastic floating in the water. As ABC7 News first reported two years ago, microplastics are threatening the bay ecosystem and have even been found in fish that end up on our dinner plates.

Scientists with the San Francisco Estuary Institute and 5 Gyres Institute will spend two years on a wide-ranging study to find out more about how the plastic is getting in the water and where it ends up.

RELATED: Synthetic clothes may be polluting San Francisco Bay

The team is using a manta trawl dragged behind a boat. The trawl has a long skinny net that is so fine it captures bits of plastic too small to see. 5 Gyres Institute has already used the trawl to sample sixty thousand miles across the world's ocean.

Rebecca Sutton of San Francisco Estuary Institute is excited about the opportunity to use it in bay waters. "The bay area is a great place to look for urban pollutants because we have a really dense population and we have a bay geography that tends to trap pollution," Sutton said.

The danger to animals that eat pieces of plastic they mistake for food has been well documented, and researchers now say ingesting even microscopic amounts of plastic floating in the water may not be healthy either. Anna Cummins with 5 Gyres Institute says plastic submerged in seawater is able to attract chemicals. "It's like a sponge for contaminants, things like PCB's, DDT, flame retardants," explained Cummins.

Researchers will be testing for microplastic in many parts of San Francisco Bay, as well as in protected marine sanctuaries outside the Golden Gate, and in water from storm drains and wastewater treatment plants the run into the bay.
Scientists already know some of the plastic bits found in the bay are from toothpaste and facial scrubs that will be phased out over the next couple years by law.

Now they want to learn more about tiny hair-like plastic that is believed to come from synthetic clothes and fleece that shed fibers when they are washed.

Local policymakers and environmentalists got a chance to go out on the research boat to see firsthand what is happening. Cummins says that outreach will be critical as the project moves forward. "If we are finding something that is readily identifiable, then we can take this directly to legislators to say - we've got a problem here in San Francisco Bay and here is how we can stop these contaminants from entering our waters," said Cummins.

Money for the research comes primarily from bay area wastewater treatment plants and the non-profit Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

A report by the World Economic Forum predicts that if current trends continue, by the year 2050, there will more plastic than fish in the world's oceans.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.
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