Students with Florida Gulf Coast University's environmental studies program are researching pollutants that find their way into the Imperial River from storm runoff. They're specifically looking for "microplastics," which can be ingested by organisms all the way up the food chain - including people.
Microplastics are broken down from larger plastic trash into pieces that are tiny but visible, and marine animals such as shellfish often mistake them for food. FGCU students found numerous microplastics in water samples they took from the river this week.
"I was surprised that some of them are that visible," said Lina Ramirez, an FGCU senior majoring in environmental studies. "You can actually see the fibers just with your naked eye."
Ramirez is concerned that runoff from recent heavy rains could bring higher-than-normal amounts of microplastics into the river - like last year, when streets in Bonita Springs flooded and the Imperial overflowed.
"We have had a lot of runoff, and that's why we have to be so careful about what we're putting into our lawns, and what we're leaving outside," she said.
Dr. Serge Taylor, who teaches environmental studies at FGCU, says shellfish and other animals absorb trace amounts of microplastics when they eat them. Those trace amounts could then be consumed by people.
"It's a problem, but it's still debated about the real impact on human systems," Taylor said.
Ramirez says she hopes their research will raise awareness about microplastic pollution. She's encouraged that Fort Myers Beach and other communities have already banned plastic straws.
"(We) might be able to get the word out and see if there's something we can do to prevent further contamination," she said.
Taylor said that while microplastics are the focus of his class's current project, he reminds them that other pollutants - such as algae blooms brought on by fertilizer in storm runoff - can harm the seagrass in local waters like the Imperial River. Those seagrasses are eaten by manatees and other wildlife.