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Ecotoxicology of microplastics in the Potomac River watershed: Effects on Aquatic Organisms, Mechanisms of Fragmentation, and Vectors of Micropollutants and Microbial pathogens

Written by Maria Rumyantseva

There have been numerous discussions on the issue of water contamination, and one might ask what novelty could this project possibly bring about? Well, the pandemic summer of 2020 dictated a new twist as the faculty members as well as students must have adjusted and adapted to a new condition with resilience, enthusiasm, creativity, and flexibility. In this blog I will share my personal experience participating in the project, I will describe the research process for a meta-analysis and how we decided to attain that virtually.

Trees with plastic bottles near a stream
Great Falls Park. Scenic Potomac River waterfall. Photo by Maria Rumyantseva on June 19th, 2020.

We are using collective available literature search on the topic of microplastics in rivers, seawater and estuaries throughout several different regions around the USA, as well as exploring articles and databases about the concentration of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), elements and molecules (inorganic nutrients; ammonia, ammonium, nitrate, nitrite, phosphates), PFAS. Then using this existent data, we will perform metanalysis which is a part of a systematic review, that is often described as the ultimate study. The search was done not only through google scholar, a web of science, and the university library but also via online resources such as and water quality website where spatial and temporal parameters could be manipulated to obtain specific data. All communications are carried out via conference calls on zoom, group chats with peers, the documents are being uploaded into Google drive, so every member has access and can edit right in the drive folder. We kept track of all the documents using Zotero which we were given a video lesson on. Additional pieces of data are being constantly added into a spreadsheet where the columns were occasionally modified, to help specify concentration, location, units, collection method, etc. There were several issues throughout the project that were helped to be solved by the mentors. Keeping everyone’s data comparable to do statistical analysis was challenging as different articles present the information in a different format. Some data (coordinates, concentrations or even year) was simply not given or the results time frame was way outdated.

Our next step is the creation of the map to visualize microplastic and it absorbed pollutants for each location to visualize the relationship. Understanding the contaminants of primary concern at identified sites is critical to sound environmental management and remediation.

Great falls
Great Falls Park. Scenic Potomac River waterfall. Photo by Maria Rumyantseva on June 19th, 2020.

Our project is focused on the ecological problem that is essential not only nationwide but also globally. It summarizes and puts together all of the available information on chemical pollutants thus, can be treated as an investment into environmental improvement because it will reveal the latest trends of microplastic and persistent pollutant concentrations in the aquatic environments. A thorough analysis of the available literature on microplastic and pollutants will output the visual data representation in the forms of plot and graph which will depict the current status and relationship between the microplastic and POPs. Although the results are not yet finalized it is expected to accomplish a detailed overview of the existent scientific literature which could be used as an informative base for future environmental toxicological research. This work will summarize all available data and expose the lack or outdated information that could influence and stimulate further investigations and suggest a new direction of research opportunity.

Taking part in a project of such a challenging nature, refined my abilities in a search of limited scientific articles in all possible databases forcing me to use keywords and other search methods to find data that does not have a lot of literature on it. The extensive information search, online talks, and presentations by the faculty members, as well as weekly video conferences with scientists from all over the world that was organized by the mentors, provided me with the knowledge in the environmental field on most current issues, suggested the futuristic ways of a solution by the state of the art developments that are already being tested and implemented to minimize or eradicate plastic pollution. It taught me how to collectively work as a group without physical reach developing my communication skills, how to deal with unexpected issues such as internet outage or data unavailability. The use of statistical software allowed me to learn new skills which certainly will be helpful in future academic work.

Maria Rumyantseva  is an undergraduate studying Biology Science at George Mason University