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U of R research to explore microplastic pollution in Saskatchewan watersheds

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: February 1, 2021 10:00 a.m.

Microplastic beads widely exist in many products of everyday use
Microplastic beads widely exist in many products of everyday use Photo: Getty Images Plus

Plastics, and microplastics specifically (plastic granules smaller than 5 mm are commonly defined as microplastics), are global pollutants found in even the most remote environments. Microplastics can travel long distances and are extremely persistent in the environment. They may also act as carriers for hazardous substances (e.g., heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, antibiotics, and pathogens), as well as toxic additives (e.g., plasticizers and colorants) that may contaminate the environment. As well, microplastics can be easily ingested by organisms, and may therefore enter higher levels of the food chain. 

These features make microplastic pollution an emerging issue for ecosystems and human beings. There have been a number of reports of microplastic pollution in aquatic environments throughout Canada. 

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Dr. Gordon Huang is leading the
ECCC-funded research into microplastic
pollution in Saskatchewan
Photo: Dr. X. J. Chen

Dr. Gordon Huang, a professor in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, has received $159,144 in funding from the federal government for his project on Research of ecotoxicological effects of microplastics in Saskatchewan watersheds. This two-year project will help provide a comprehensive evaluation of microplastic ecotoxicity, and increase the understanding on microplastic pollution in Canada, with the focus being on Saskatchewan watersheds. This funding is through Environment and Climate Change Canada’s (ECCC) Increasing knowledge on plastic pollution initiative. 

Similar studies being carried out in the past have looked at microplastic pollution and its effects on Canadian water bodies such as the Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg. Currently, there is limited information about microplastics in Saskatchewan watersheds. 

“On one hand, microplastics may travel across Canadian provinces through river networks. For example, a portion of microplastics found in freshwater bodies of Alberta and Manitoba may come from or travel to Saskatchewan. Information on the occurrence and characteristics of microplastic contamination in Saskatchewan watersheds remains a significant knowledge gap,” says Huang. “On the other hand, the ecotoxicological effects of microplastics are related to numerous factors, such as environmental and climatic conditions. Exploring the effects of these factors and their interactions on the related microplastic ecotoxicity is critical for the protection of environment and public health in Saskatchewan where extreme cold weather, large saline-water volume, and intensive industrial activities exist.” 

The objective of Dr. Huang’s research is to study and further the understanding of the occurrence and environmental effects of microplastics in Saskatchewan watersheds. In detail, samples from typical Saskatchewan watersheds will be collected and analyzed to characterize microplastic pollutants through various analytical technologies at the U of R and Canadian Light Source. The impacts of environmental factors (e.g., temperature, salinity, and light) on microplastic ecotoxicity will be investigated. The joint toxicity induced by microplastics and other pollutants (e.g., heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) from various industrial processes will be evaluated, to reveal how microplastics interact with these pollutants and the resulting composite ecotoxicity. Microalga, as the primary producers in aquatic food chain, will be used as indicators for the relevant toxicity evaluation. The research team is composed of researchers, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from the Faculty of Engineering and the Institute of Energy, Environment and Sustainable Communities. 

“The Government of Canada is working hard to address plastic pollution and move toward a more circular economy, including by banning certain harmful single-use plastics,” says Peter Schiefke, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change. “By collaborating with university researchers and not-for-profit organizations, we are bridging the information gaps on the effects of plastics on the health of Canadians and our environment, making progress toward zero plastic waste by 2030 and creating a cleaner future for our children and grandchildren.” 

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Analytical equipment for microplastic
research Photo: Dr. X. J. Chen

As the project's leader, Dr. Huang has produced more than 1000 peer-refereed journal papers (with an h-index of 70 in Science Citation Index under the Web of Science), and was recently included in Stanford University’s 2020 World Ranking for the world’s top 2 per cent of most-cited scientists. He was ranked 13th globally and 2nd nationally in the field of environmental engineering as shown here

Dr. Kathleen McNutt, Vice-President (Research) is pleased that the research happening at the University of Regina is receiving national recognition. The institution was also recently named the Research University of the Year in the undergraduate university category by Research Infosource, a leading source of ranking information on research and development in Canada. 

“We have world-class researchers making new discoveries every single day,” says McNutt. “Dr. Huang’s project looking at the effects of microplastics in Saskatchewan watersheds is a great example of the quality of work and research coming out of the University of Regina right now.”

This project was undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada through the federal Department of Environment and Climate Change Canada.  

Ce projet a été réalisé avec l'appui financier du gouvernement du Canada agissant par l'entremise du ministère fédéral de l'Environnement et du Changement climatique. 

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