What’s really in sand beneath your feet?

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YOU may be surprised, but the sand beneath your feet may not be as pristine as it seems.

A team of researchers from the Griffith University Centre for Coastal Management have found microplastic particles on Gold Coast beaches and sand dunes.

Plastic debris can come in all shapes and sizes, but those (pieces) that are less than five millimeters in length (or about the size of a sesame seed) are called “microplastics” … Standardised field methods for collecting sediment, sand, and surface-water microplastic samples have been developed and continue to undergo testing. Eventually, field and laboratory protocols will allow for global comparisons of the amount of microplastics released into the environment, which is the first step in determining the final distribution, impacts, and fate of this debris.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

On the Gold Coast, samples are being analysed in a Centre for Coastal Management laboratory and initial results show the presence of microplastics at both Surfers Paradise and Palm Beach.

Environmental scientist Dr Fabiana Moreira said that – because the Gold Coast had strong waves, heavy coastal erosion and transport of sand – the team expected to find relatively low amounts of microplastics compared to other parts of Australia.

“… these tiny plastics are very difficult to remove from the environment, so a great proportion will end up in waterways or stormwater drains and, finally, in the ocean”
Griffith University environmental scientist Dr Fabiana Moreira

Dr Moreira pointed out, however, that while coastal conditions do not favour the depositing of litter from the sea, it does not mean that there is not a problem regarding plastic pollution.

Child being shown how to sift micro plastics from sand with a sieve

by Marissa Lim
A young child sifts sand to discover any microplastics.

“If you walk around parks, barbecues and playground areas, you will easily spot microplastics such as cigarette butts, food packaging pieces, party confetti and glitter,” Dr Moreira said.

“The problem is that – different from macroplastics – these tiny plastics are very difficult to remove from the environment, so a great proportion will end up in waterways or stormwater drains and, finally, in the ocean.”

Dr Moreira explained that much of the microplastics currently on Gold Coast beaches could be carried away on the tide and deposited in other regions.

Reducing the presence of microplastics in the environment, she said, would take awareness and a change in habits, even with the very young.

The package revealed food items placed in a resealable plastic bag labelled “Magic Reindeer Food”, containing oat grains, party confetti and many other trimmed pieces of plastics.
Dr Fabiana Moreira

For instance, in many kindergartens teachers frequently encourage children to do arts and crafts with plastics, such as glitter, confetti, and beads.

A portion of those tiny pieces usually end up discarded as rubbish or scattered in the environment, eventually finding their way to waterways or shorelines.

In 2017, when Dr Moreira and her family spent their first Christmas in Australia, her daughter brought home a package from kindergarten to celebrate.

The package revealed food items that were placed in a resealable plastic bag labelled “Magic Reindeer Food”, containing oat grains, party confetti plus many other, trimmed pieces of plastic.

“(The instructions with it said) ‘Sprinkle on the lawn at night … These will guide reindeers to your home!’” Dr Moreira recalled.

“I (thought) ‘Oh gosh, you’re just instructing the kids to throw litter onto the floor!’ and that was something that I didn’t expect.”

The ‘Magic reindeer food’ that was packed in a resealable plastic bag.

 

Dr Moreira said she was surprised to learn many kindergartens and teachers did not know much about the contribution that microplastics were making to the waste stream and environmental pollution.

“It’s not because they are bad people,” she added, “it’s just because they are not well informed.”

Given the potential lifelong influence education can have on children, Dr Moreira’s experience was not easily forgotten.

Two years later, on Saturday, August 31, the Griffith Centre for Coastal Management launched a unique program at the inaugural Gold Coast Whale Festival at Burleigh Heads.

The centre’s latest project is in collaboration with the non-government organisation Ocean Connect.

Called “Marine Debris Too Small To Se(a)e”, its main purpose is to encourage community engagement, with the aim of educating the younger generation about microplastics.

Dr Moreira explained that upcoming events would involve school students participating in citizen science aspects of the project.

After analysing the sandy samples they collect, school students will then provide to the coastal management centre a snapshot of the amount of microplastics present on the Gold Coast’s beaches and sandy dunes at that time.

But the Griffith Centre for Coastal Management is not alone in trying to track the migration of plastics and microplastics from land to sea.

“We’re looking at what typically you would consume, day to day, and see whether that adds up to some of the numbers being thrown around in terms of weekly human exposure”
Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences’ Professor Kevin Thomas

The microplastic research team from the Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (QAEHS) at the University of Queensland is working on a project that aims to quantify human exposure to plastics through food consumption.

This team looks at what level of plastic is found in typical food substances and calculates the concentration of the chemicals coming from plastics.

QAEHS centre director Professor Kevin Thomas said that, instead of using microscopes to count each particle of microplastic, researchers burn the plastics with a high temperature pressure machine.

Regardless of their size, this makes evident the chemicals that were used to create those plastics.

“We’re looking at what typically you would consume, day to day, and see whether that adds up to some of the numbers being thrown around in terms of weekly human exposure,” Professor Thomas said.

Food substances that have been analysed include seafood, pasteurised vegetables, meat and coffee.

So far, Professor Thomas said, the team had found high levels of different plastics in crabs and prawns.

“We collaborate globally because the chemical fingerprint is a real global issue, and we try to look at using data in a very smart way with researchers overseas to see if we can identify chemicals of significance that we are exposed to day to day,” he explained.

A collection of plastic items found on a Gold Coast beach

by Marissa Lim
A collection of plastic items found on a Gold Coast beach.

 

When their results are finalised, the information is to be shared at a special public event, “The Microplastics Invasion” at Customs House on September 12, run as part of UQ’s Global Leadership Series.

Griffith University’s Dr Moreira said that, when plastics enter the environment, they can leach harmful chemicals such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB).

Over time, these chemicals accumulate in the body and become increasingly toxic to humans and to animals.

Dr Moreira noted that microplastics were readily ingested by a variety of animals, including mussels, oysters and fish, all foods that humans eat.

Over time, these chemicals accumulate in the body and become increasingly toxic to humans and to animals.

Ingesting microplastics in food, Dr Moreira explained, could result in a range of possible physiological or hormonal changes in the body, depending on how much had been consumed and its chemical composition.

See a video of Ocean Connect volunteers showing visitors to the inaugural Gold Coast Whale Festival how microplastics are discerned in sand samples.

While research has been done on different types of animals, she said, the effects on humans were still being observed and confirmed.

What is known from animal studies, Dr Moreira added, was that while plastics have many characteristics based on different blends of chemicals, each type of plastic would have a specific effect.

She said it would vary with the type of animals as well, where some were more resistant and more adaptable to chemical stress than some others.

“That might be the same as well for humans, as we are humans, but we are different,” Dr Moreira said, “I might be more susceptible than you.”

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Words: Marissa Lim
Images & video: Marissa Lim / The Argus

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Want to read more?
The original version of this story is one of 30 in a special online Climate Change edition of The Argus that was compiled by Queensland College of Art students from a final-year course called Transmedia Storytelling.