Small Particles,
Big Problem?

Chemist's research answers crucial questions about environmental impact

Microplastics: they are roughly the size of a sesame seed, and they show up nearly everywhere, including the world’s waterways and food supply.

Scientists are not sure how harmful microplastics may be to humans, animals, and marine life, but they are increasingly concerned. On International Women's Day, Georgia Arbuckle-Keil, professor of chemistry at Rutgers University in Camden, discusses her work in determining just how dangerous—or innocuous—microplastics really are.

“Although microplastics have been documented worldwide, their toxicological implications are not yet known,” Arbuckle-Keil said.

Defined as plastic debris less than five millimeters in length, microplastics are small enough to pass through water filtration systems, which allows them to easily enter Earth’s waterways and subsequently be consumed by animal and marine life. They are considered an emerging contaminant, which means they have been detected as an environmental pollutant, but not enough research has been done to understand their impact.

Arbuckle-Keil and her team are working to change that. They performed a field survey of small animals known as zooplankton in the highly urbanized Hudson-Raritan estuary to evaluate the volume of microplastics these organisms ingest. Their findings were published in the journal Science of the Total Environment in 2022.

Georgia Arbuckle-Keil, professor of chemistry at Rutgers University in Camden.

Georgia Arbuckle-Keil, professor of chemistry at Rutgers University in Camden.

“Based on the fact that microplastics had been found in the Raritan, we expected to see microplastics to some extent,” Arbuckle-Keil said. “The fact that microplastics were found in all three species of zooplankton we collected—and in higher quantities than we expected—was surprising.”

Plastics of any size represent a challenge for the planet because they do not decompose; instead, they degrade into smaller pieces over time. All the plastic ever made still exists in one form or another. With only about nine percent of all plastic in use worldwide being recycled, much of the plastic has ended up in the environment and in the world’s rivers, lakes, and oceans.  

A show poster for Thurston the Great Magician
A show poster for Thurston the Great Magician

World Wildlife Fund International estimated that people could be ingesting as many as five grams of plastic every week, which is enough to fill a plastic bottle cap, and the long-term effects are unclear.

“If ingested, microplastics should be excreted by the human body,” said Arbuckle-Keil. “The concern is not the microplastic particles alone; many plastics contain a variety of additives, and if the additives leach out of the plastic, there could be toxic implications.” Arbuckle-Keil noted that plastics in the environment can also absorb toxins, which can lead to the same result if ingested.

While researchers like Arbuckle-Keil continue to work to understand the impact of microplastics on the environment and to plant and animal life, there are a few simple steps she recommends: “Reduce the use of single-use plastics,” Arbuckle-Keil said. ”Always recycle, and whenever possible, reuse plastics. Never leave plastics in the environment to degrade.”

As a woman who has been working in STEM for more than thirty years, Arbuckle-Keil is a trailblazer in her field. The American Chemical Society, one of the discipline’s premier professional organizations, did not elect a woman president until 1978, more than 100 years after it had been established. While strides have been made in the ensuing decades, the most recent National Science Foundation report on diversity and STEM showed that women make up on 35.1% of all chemists. Arbuckle-Keil encourages those interested in pursuing a degree or career in chemistry to follow their passion undaunted.

“I enjoy my career in chemistry,” Arbuckle-Keil said. “Students should be confident, explore their interests, and find pursuits that bring them satisfaction.”

March is Women's History Month. This year's storytelling campaign, “Full STEAM Ahead,” spotlights the contributions of women in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, introducing our community to some of the many women on campus who excel as researchers and scholars.

For centuries, women were denied full participation in the intellectual pursuits that have transformed human knowledge and culture. Although much has been done to increase equality, women and girls can still face bias and other roadblocks when attempting to make their mark in male-dominated disciplines. Each story in this monthlong campaign will tell the story of a woman who has persevered in the face of gender inequality, producing work that stands alongside the best in her field.

Creative Design: Beatris Santos

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