Paddling to Protect the Mississippi
- Amelia Foster
- June 20, 2019
Maya Dizack has experienced the effects of poor water quality firsthand. As a kid growing up near Lake Michigan, she dreamed of being a mermaid. She swam in rivers and streams near her Wisconsin home, and, as mermaids do, she drank the river water. After E. coli poisoning landed her in the emergency room, her family had serious concerns about water pollution, and they were ready to do something about it.
Maya’s family connected with the Wisconsin DNR’s Water Action Volunteers program. When she was five years old, she and her dad began kayaking along local tributaries to gather water samples for a statewide database. As a young citizen scientist, her love of the outdoors became inextricably linked with environmental education.
Kayaking 2,348 miles with a mission
Now a college student, Maya has transformed her interest in water quality into an epic adventure. This summer, from May to July, she’s kayaking the entire length of the Mississippi River to study how land use and population density affect the abundance of microplastics. Since starting her trip on May 26th, Maya has paddled from the headwaters and peat bogs through farmland and cityscapes. Every 50 to 100 miles along the river, Maya will sample a liter or two of water and send it to a university lab for later study.
Microplastics are technically defined as a piece of plastic smaller than five millimeters in any direction, but many of them are microscopic in size. Our environment is full of these tiny pollutants that enter waterways through wastewater and roadway runoff.
A large source of microplastics is synthetic textiles that break down in the wash and the abrasion of tires against the road while driving. Other sources include face-scrubs, litter, and plastic manufacturing, to name just a few. According to a 2017 study published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the United States contributes three times the global average of plastics to the environment per capita. The cumulative result is a massive release of microplastics into the environment that’s equivalent to every person in North America throwing 150 plastic shopping bags into the ocean every week.
Microplastics pose a threat to humans and wildlife
As Maya travels down the river, microplastics are making headlines. Recently published studies indicate that the average person may ingest between 39,000 and 52,000 tiny plastic particles each year, raising questions about how the pollution of waterways affects the health of our bodies.
Since microplastics are present in nearly everything including tap water, table salt, and the air we breathe, they’re impossible to avoid. Plastics—even everyday products like water bottles—are manufactured with chemical additives, including BPAs, flame retardants, and chemical stabilizers, many of which disrupt the endocrine system. When microplastics run off land into water, other harmful chemicals like DDT, PCBs and heavy metals can attach to them.
Plastic pollutants are a serious hazard to wildlife as well. Small organisms that can’t discern microplastics from plankton consume them, and as a result, pollutants accumulate in their fatty tissues, moving up the food chain. In larger organisms, plastics block up their digestive systems; some animals starve and die.
Scientists are now studying health effects of human consumption of thousands of microplastics each year. Maya is frustrated by the slow response to environmental hazards, noting, “Our system is ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ so the FDA has to wait to see chronic health effects before they can ban harmful chemicals in plastic manufacturing.”
Take action to reduce plastic pollution
Maya hopes her trip will raise awareness around microplastic pollution. Along the route, she’s partnering with the Mississippi River Network on outreach events. While the results of her study remain to be seen, you don’t have to wait to reduce your environmental impact. Follow Maya’s tips to protect our waterways from these toxic microplastics:
- Cut plastic consumption. Reuse your containers and avoid single-use plastic items.
- Wash your laundry with a Guppyfriend laundry bag or Cora Ball. These products will prevent plastic fibers from polyester clothing from entering wastewater.
- Get involved with the Mississippi River Network and join a growing network of River Citizens dedicated to protecting the river.
Photos of Maya provided by Michael McGuire. You can find more of his work on Instagram: @michaelmcguirephoto
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