Microplastics in Pennsylvania’s Waterways

Since synthetic plastic was first invented in the early 1900s, annual global plastic production has increased from 1.5 million metric tons in 1950 to 359 billion metric tons in 2018.[1] Correspondingly, there has been an increase in plastic waste that sometimes ends up in waterways, oceans and in drinking water supplies.

What Are Microplastics?

Instead of biodegrading, plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, measurable in both meters and nanometers. Plastic less than five millimeters in length, smaller than a grain of rice, are called microplastics.

The bulk of microplastics in the oceans comes from sources like synthetic textiles, car tires, paint dust, and personal care products, among others. For example, microbeads are polyethylene pellets that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products, including some cleansers and toothpastes. In 2015, the U.S. government banned plastic microbeads from cosmetics and personal care products because they can easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes, posing a potential threat to aquatic life. Some studies have estimated that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight).

Are Microplastics a Health Risk?

The health impacts to humans from microplastics is a focus of ongoing research. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), larger particles, and most smaller ones, pass through the body without being absorbed. But the WHO has called for greater research into potential health risks as its study was based on limited and unstandardized information. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) held an expert workshop in 2017 that discussed the need for greater understanding of the risks and need to address the scientific uncertainties on this topic.

In addition to more research, WHO wants drinking water suppliers and regulators to focus on known risks, namely fecal contamination of drinking water, which causes one million deaths per year. By properly treating wastewater, which removes fecal content and chemicals, water suppliers would also remove more than 90 percent of microplastics, according to the WHO.[2]

While there is uncertainty about the human health impacts from microplastics themselves, there is concern that they may concentrate harmful toxins like DDT and PCBs on their surfaces. These toxins can endanger human health by making their way up the food chain.

Impact to Pennsylvania Waterways

In 2021, the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center released a new study which found microplastics in 100 percent of the collected water samples from 53 rivers, streams, and lakes in the state of Pennsylvania.[3]

  • 100% of sites sampled had microfibers, primarily from clothing and textiles
  • 86.8% of sites sampled had micro fragments, primarily from harder plastics or plastic feedstock
  • 94.3% of sites sampled had microfilm, primarily from bags and flexible plastic packaging
  • 1.9% of sites had microbeads, primarily from facial scrubs and other cosmetic products

A conservation associate at PennEnvironment likens Pennsylvanians’ consumption of microplastic to eating a credit card every week.[4]

Five Rs to Reduce the Impact of Plastic Waste

Despite the enormous challenges we face combatting plastic waste, there are five steps that individuals and businesses can take:[5]

  1. Reduce. Consider alternatives to plastic like glass and paper.
  2. Reuse. Find a secondary or tertiary use for the plastics you have.
  3. Recycle.
  4. Rethink. Demand more biodegradable plastics that contain fewer harmful compounds.
  5. Regulate plastics to protect human health, as well as the quality of our waterways.


Plastic waste is a growing problem for the environment and potentially for human health. Research suggests that we may not be counting 99 percent of the plastic that makes its way into the oceans and waterways from roadside litter, landfills, car tires, and many other sources.[6] Despite these challenges, there are steps that individuals and companies can take to reduce the plastics they consume.

Next Steps

If you have questions or concerns about this or other water-related issues, BAI Group can help. For over 30 years, BAI Group has assisted private industry and government agencies with water pollution and waste management issues including leaking underground storage tanks, remediation, water supply permitting, groundwater sampling, testing and much more. Contact us today to learn more about our environmental consulting services.

[1] “Plastic Waste Worldwide – Statistics & Facts,” statista.com, Last accessed 4/4/21, https://www.statista.com/topics/5401/global-plastic-waste/

[2] “Microplastics in water pose ‘no apparent health risk’” BBC.com, Last accessed 4/4/21, https://www.bbc.com/news/health-49430038

[3] “Microplastics in Pennsylvania – A survey of waterways,” PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center, Last accessed 4/4/21, https://environmentamerica.org/reports/pac/microplastics-pennsylvania

[4] “How bad is PA’s microplastics problem?” NextPittsburgh, Last accessed 4/4/21, https://nextpittsburgh.com/latest-news/microplastics-are-found-in-100-of-pas-waterways-what-can-we-do/

[5] “CBF Op-Ed: As We Learn More About Tiny Bits Of Plastic In The Water, There ‘R’ Things We Can Do,” PA Environment Digest, Last accessed 4/4/21, http://www.paenvironmentdigest.com/newsletter/default.asp?NewsletterArticleID=52537&SubjectID

[6] “Microplastics in Pennsylvania – A survey of waterways,” PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center, Last accessed 4/4/21, https://environmentamerica.org/reports/pac/microplastics-pennsylvania