Flushed contact lenses add to burden of plastic waste

A new study on contact lenses is proving to be eye opening. Halden, Rolsky and a third member of the team, Varun Kelkar, are at the Biodesign Institute's Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University (ASU).

"This is a pretty large number, considering roughly 45 million people in the US alone wear contact lenses", said Charles Rolsky, a PhD student who is working with Halden and a third member of the ASU team, Varun Kelkar.

About 45 million people in the USA alone use contact lenses, according to a survey conducted by the researchers, and between 15 percent and 20 percent of those users said they flush their used lenses down the toilet or sink.

In the first study of its kind five polymers found in many contact lenses were scanned after being exposed for varying time to microorganisms in wastewater treatment plants.

Americans use about 14-billion contact lenses every year. Perhaps they could start putting a label in the packaging of contact lenses that details proper disposal methods, said Rolf Halden, one of the authors.

They examined the fate of 13 different contact-lens brands made from nine different types of plastic polymers.

Now a research team based in the United States has shown for the first time how they can get eaten by fish and other marine life and be returned to us on our plates. By tallying this detritus and studying how it persists in this environment, the study provides the first estimate of the potential burden of these tiny plastics, or microplastics.

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As a result, they end up in USA wastewater - and all those plastic, in turn, end up contributing to microplastic pollution now clogging up waterways, which eventually makes its way to the food chain.

The research has been presented at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston.

"We found that 15 to 20 percent of contact-lens wearers are flushing the lenses down the sink or toilet", he said.

Aquatic organisms can mistake microplastics for food and since plastics are indigestible, this dramatically affects the marine animals' digestive system.

To make matters worse, because contact lenses are typically denser than water, they can sink into aquatic zones and be eaten by marine life thriving down there, which can potentially poison them. When these microplastics persist in the environment they can be consumed by animals, birds or insects and make their way into the food chain.

Analysing what happens to these lenses is a challenge for several reasons. So it is unclear how wastewater treatment affects them. What is more, contact lenses are different from plastics used in other products, such as polypropylene, found in everything from auto batteries to textiles. They found that 19 percent of contact lens wearers flushed them down the drain when they didn't need them anymore. Some eventually find their way to the human food supply, which could lead to unwanted human exposures to plastic contaminants and pollutants that stick to the surfaces of the plastics. ACS does not conduct research, but publishes and publicizes peer-reviewed scientific studies.

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