British river has worst recorded microplastic pollution in the world, study finds

British river has the worst microplastic pollution in the world, researchers have found, with levels even greater than hugely built-up areas such as in South Korea and Hong Kong.

Geographers at The University of Manchester are calling for tighter regulations to prevent plastic entering waterways after finding ‘extraordinarily’ high concentrations in north west England.

The team examined river sediments from 40 sites across Greater Manchester including urban rivers and rural streams. They found microplastic everywhere even in the remote parts of Saddleworth Moor in the South Pennines.

But the River Tame at Denton was found to have the highest levels of microplastics recorded anywhere in the world, at 517,000 particles per m2. The level was far higher than at the Incheon-Kyeonggi beaches in South Korea or the Pearl River Estuary in Hong Kong.

Jamie Woodward, Professor of Physical Geography at the Department of Geography, said the results were likely to be the tip of the iceberg and called for the Environment Agency to start monitoring microplastic levels in Britain’s rivers.

“If you had done the work in the West Midlands or South East England I am sure you would have got similar results,” he said.

“We’re shining a light on a huge problem that, until now, has been under the radar. We found microplastics everywhere, even in streams high in the hills. Wherever you find people you find plastic.

“We found we had the worst levels in the world, some of which were extraordinarily high. The River Tame is a global hotspot for microplastics.

“Ultimately we need to get better at managing wastewater, and the Environment Agency urgently needs to look at Britain’s rivers and see what the extent of microplastics is in the UK.”

The team believe the microplastics arefinding theirway into rivers from a combination of industrial effluent and domestic wastewater.

It has been shown that a single polyester fleece jacket can release more than 1900 plastic fibres per wash while, until they were banned in January, plastic microbeads were common in toothpastes, shampoos and shower gels.

A larval perch with microplastic particles in its gut

A larval perch with microplastic particles in its gutCREDIT:REUTERS

The test were carried out in 2015, and the team also found that around 70 per cent of the microplastics were washed away into the sea following the devastating 2015/2016 floods.

“While that is good for the river beds, because we now know they can effectively cleanse themselves, it is bad news for the oceans,” added Professor Woodward.

“Microplastics in the ocean have recently attracted a lot of attention, but until now science knew little about the major sources of this pollution and the transport processes involved.

“We are only beginning to understand the extent of the microplastic contamination problem in the world’s rivers. To tackle the problem in the oceans, we have to prevent microplastics entering river channels.”

The researchers estimate that the flooding flushed around 43 billion microplastic particles from the River Mersey and Irwell catchments, and into the Irish Sea.

Arecent global estimate put the input of plastic into the oceans at approximately 6.4 million tons per annum.

Much of the plastic floats rather than sinks, so it is swallowed by marine animals who cannot digest it. Chemicals also leach into the water, and it has been shown that even humans who eat seafood ingest 11,000 pieces of microplastic each year.

Although it was believed that 90 per cent of microplastic contamination originated from the land - the rest coming from shipping accidents - the new study is the first to look in depth at where the source may be.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said:“We are working with the water industry and leading academics to investigate the types and quantities of microplastics entering the environment. This research will feed into plans to tackle this type of pollution at the source.

“Plastic pollution is a threat to our natural environment and by working together, we can reduce the amount which enters our land, rivers and the sea and protect wildlife for future generations.”

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