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A Water Quality Activist Tests Missouri Waters For Tiny Pieces Of Plastic

Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper director Rachel Bartels holds up a jar containing a sample of the Mississippi River near the Arch in Sept. 2019.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Rachel Bartels, co-founder of the Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper, is sampling parts of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and small streams to find out how much they're filled with microplastics.

Missouri waters are polluted with microplastics, small pieces of plastic smaller than a pencil eraser. 

Microplastics can come from large pieces of plastic that degrade into smaller pieces and consumer products, like toothpaste and cosmetics, that contain microbeads. While research has shown that plastic pollution can threaten aquatic life, scientists are still trying to understand how microplastics could affect human health. 

Understanding the impact of microplastics starts by knowing how much is in local waters, said Rachel Bartels, co-founder of the nonprofit Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper.

“I live in this community, and I drink this water, and my kids drink this water, and we play in the rivers,” Bartels said. “And I just feel like that’s a question we should be able to answer: What’s in our water?” 

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources does not monitor state waterways for microplastics. 

Bartels has collected water samples from a dozen sites, including parts of the Missouri River near Kansas City and the Mississippi River near the Arch grounds. She’s sending the samples to be tested at a laboratory at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Using a microscope, filter paper and a vacuum pump, Bartels has also looked at the samples. 

“Every single sample has had multiple microplastics,” she said. 

Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper Rachel Bartels taking a sample of the Mississippi River near the arch in Sept. 2019.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Bartels is sending samples of Missouri waterways to be tested at a laboratory at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

A World Health Organization report in late August said microplastics are becoming more present in drinking water, but there’s no evidence that they harm human health. 

The Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper is working with stream teams, local groups of volunteers that clean up streams, to collect some of the samples. Bartels aims to set up a water quality lab to test for E. coli, the chemical PFAS and other contaminants. 

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.