An American study found that millions of old contact lenses end up at water treatment plants, are broken down into microplastics and can enter the ecosystem.
Lenses, usually discarded after about a month or sometimes just a day's use, often end up in wastewater treatment plants.
He said he thinks the research can help "start a dialogue with the producers of contact lenses and to work with them to take better care of the material flow" - and to encourage them to include instructions on their packaging to let consumers know to toss them in the trash.
"When the plastic loses some of its structural strength, it will break down physically". These animals are part of a long food chain. Some microplastics eventually can find their way into the human food supply, causing inadvertent uptake and unwanted human exposures to both the plastic polymer and a spectrum of environmental contaminants that tend to stick to the surface of plastics.
Millions and millions of Americans put on contact lenses each day, but majority probably aren't aware that these thin circular strips of plastic pose great harm to the environment. They found that "15 to 20 percent of contact lens wearers are flushing contacts down the sink or toilet", lead study author Charlie Rolsky, a doctoral student in biology at the same institution, said in a statement. And with 45 million contact lens wearers in the US alone, that's a lot of contacts ending up in water treatment plants.
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As they are denser than water they sink and endanger aquatic life, especially bottom feeders that may ingest them, explained Dr Halden.
Analyzing what happens to contact lenses and lens fragments once emitted by wastewater-treatment plants has been a challenge for researchers. First, contact lenses are transparent, which makes them hard to observe in the complicated milieu of a wastewater treatment plant.
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Next, the team submerged contacts in chambers where bacteria are used to break down biological waste at a treatment plant. Further, the plastics used in contact lenses are different from other plastic waste, such as polypropylene, which can be found in everything from auto batteries to textiles.
To figure out if the lenses biodegrade, the researchers subjected five of the polymers commonly used in contact lenses to anaerobic and aerobic microorganisms typically found in wastewater plants, for different amounts of time.
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In the second and third stage, the researchers found out that contact lenses weaken when mixed together with microbes present in wastewater.
Contact lens packages don't now tell users how to dispose of them, said Halden, who suggested that companies should add labels recommending that contacts be put in the garbage rather than washed down the drain.
The researchers acknowledge support and funding from ASU's Human Health Observatory and the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust. ACS does not conduct research, but publishes and publicizes peer-reviewed scientific studies.
Note to journalists: Please report that this research was presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.
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