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Image Credit: University of Basel / Thomas Mani

Image Credit: University of Basel / Thomas Mani

Microplastics are choking the waters of the Rhine River in Switzerland, according to new research published in Scientific Reports this week.

Scientists from the University of Basel in Switzerland sampled 11 locations over 820 kilometers (510 miles) of the river between Basel and Rotterdam and found the tiny bits of plastic everywhere.

The most polluted spot along the river was the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area where scientists found microplastics at a concentration of 3.9 million particles per square kilometer, making the Rhine one of the densest rivers for microplastic pollution. On average throughout the 11 locations, microplastics were found at a concentration of 892,777 particles per square kilometer.

By comparison, previous research has found around 43,000 particles per square kilometer in the Great Lakes and 1,000 microplastic particles per liter in the St. Lawrence River.

“The Rhine’s microplastics concentrations are thus among the highest so far studied worldwide,” according to Patricia Holm, biology professor at the University of Basel.

Based on the researchers’ calculations, the Rhine could be depositing more than 191 million plastic particles into the North Sea every day. “Each one of these billions of plastic items can be ingested by organisms and have negative effects on their health,” Holm said in a statement.

Microplastics are defined as bits of plastic less than 5 millimeters in diameter. They are found in many personal care items like soaps and toothpastes, where they act as exfoliants. They enter waterways because they are too small to be filtered out through waste-water treatment facilities.

The researchers found a variety of different types of microplastics, including those most often found in personal care products, but also microplastics from industrial cleaners, the breakdown of larger plastic items, and waste products from plastic manufacturing.

“We emphasize the importance and urgency of immediate measures in the management of plastic debris,” the authors wrote in their study.

Recently, there have been movements to phase out microplastics from personal care products to reduce the amount that end up rivers, lakes, and oceans. Earlier this week, the US Congress voted for a bill that would begin to phase out microplastics in 2017. And Australia has a plan get rid of them by 2016.

According to the authors of this recent study though, “legal implementation in most European countries is largely missing or insufficient,” although Germany has a marine policy to achieve “good status” of marine waters by 2020 by focusing on reducing litter.

Microplastics have already been shown to be ingested by marine organisms, including fish, whales, and even corals, with largely unknown consequences.

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