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NMC research finds microplastics in well water, earthworms

Each sample goes through a digestion process which leaves behind only sediment, minerals and microplastics. Plastic fibers, if present in the sample, are visible under a microscope. (Photo: Ellie Katz/IPR News)
Each sample goes through a digestion process which leaves behind only sediment, minerals and microplastics. Plastic fibers, if present in the sample, are visible under a microscope. (Photo: Ellie Katz/IPR News)

It’s summer vacation, but biology professor Nick Roster is in the lab.

“What I'm doing right now is taking samples,” Roster says, as he pours stainless steel bottles of water into a vacuum filter system. “That gets rid of all the organics and then what's left are either going to be minerals or plastic.”

Roster and his students at Northwestern Michigan College began testing samples from the Boardman River last fall but have now expanded the project to include well water.

They’ve sampled wells from homes in Grawn, the Old Mission Peninsula, Traverse City and Mancelona, mainly belonging to fellow students, faculty and Roster himself.

“We're finding plastic in all of these wells,” Roster said. “That's going to perhaps spawn other research on, ‘How is plastic getting from where we are [to] 200 feet down into the water aquifer?’ We have no idea.”

State agencies estimate that roughly 30% of Michigan residents get their water from wells.

Roster says he was surprised by how much plastic was found in water from his own 220-foot well near Traverse City.

“It’s alarming,” he said. That’s because most of the plastic they’re finding is not coming from plastic piping.

“What we're finding is fibers. And plastic pipes don't shed fibers, they shed pieces of plastic, but not fibers,” Roster said. “Fibers are coming from clothes.”

He says most of what he and his students find are these plastic fibers, which appear in a lot of the things we wear these days. They shed in the washing machine and enter waterways.

Roster and his students have even found plastic fibers in earthworms.

He says some researchers are studying how plastic permeates soil, but the answer is still unclear.

Microplastic also accumulates in our bodies. Early research has linked it to infertility, colon cancer and heart disease.

Despite that, the pollutant still remains largely unregulated at both the state and federal levels.

Roster says students will begin taking air samples this summer, since inhalation is another known pathway for human exposure to microplastics.

They will also continue sampling in new areas, including at West Bay and at Traverse City’s water treatment plant, which treats drinking water for residents and businesses.

He says they also hope to work with area well drillers as a way to take soil samples at varying depths.

Ellie Katz joined IPR in June 2023. She reports on science, conservation and the environment.