© 2022 University of Missouri - KBIA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

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

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.
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. 

Bartels is sending samples of Missouri waterways to be tested at a laboratory at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
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. 

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Eli Chen is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. She comes to St. Louis after covering the eroding Delaware coast, bat-friendly wind turbine technology, mouse love songs and various science stories for Delaware Public Media/WDDE-FM. Before that, she corralled robots and citizen scientists for the World Science Festival in New York City and spent a brief stint booking guests for Science Friday’s live events in 2013. Eli grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where a mixture of teen angst, a love for Ray Bradbury novels and the growing awareness about climate change propelled her to become the science storyteller she is today. When not working, Eli enjoys a solid bike ride, collects classic disco, watches standup comedy and is often found cuddling other people’s dogs. She has a bachelor’s in environmental sustainability and creative writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has a master’s degree in journalism, with a focus on science reporting, from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.