The 180-foot-long Lake Guardian had a radically different life before the U.S. EPA, in the early 1990's, transformed it into a fully equipped, freshwater research lab.
Capt. Dave Krueger tells me that it was originally an off-shore supply vessel used in the Gulf of Mexico by the oil and gas industry.
The new environmental mission “seems like a good use of excess oil gear,” says Krueuger.
Instead of stacks of drilling pipe, the ship now carries test tubes, sampling gear and several scientists, including Sam Mason from State University of New York, Fredonia.
She's signed on for a week of sampling Lake Erie’s waters for an unseen menace.
Floating plastic pollution fills the lake
Mason shows me her prized sampling device, a manta trawl. Its stainless steel wings make it look like a manta ray skimming through the water, dragging a 10-foot tail.
The manta trawl's 333 micromesh net, with holes a third of millimeter in diameter is "apparently the same mesh size as wedding veil,” according to Mason.
The mesh net traps tiny bits of floating junk, a mix of plankton, plants, and debris, that she digests with chemicals that strip away the organic matter.
Mason describes the process as "magic" when different colored pieces of plastic appear in the solution, "bubbling through and going up and down like a lava lamp."
Where microbeads end up
What’s left if the chemical digestion is a pile of tiny plastic particles called microbeads. Mason says they come from an array of products like body washes, toothpastes, facial washes, and hand sanitizers.
She says the tiny plastic particles wash down the drain, pass through waste treatment plants, and float out into Lake Erie. The plankton-sized plastic is eaten by fish and works its way up the food chain.
Her discovery of microbead pollution led Illinois last month to ban their sale starting in 2018. Similar measures are being considered in Ohio, New York and California.
Antidepressants, antibiotics, and algae
Researcher Steve Mauro from Gannon University in Erie, Pa., waits outside the nearby Great Lakes Science Center. He’s on the trip to study other pollutants that effect the health of the lake.
Mauro says the pharmaceutical Fluoxetine, the main ingredient in antidepressants, is being found in the lake, along with triclosan, an antibacterial found in many household products, and microcystin, the toxin that’s produced by cyanobacteria in harmful algal blooms.
Despite the enormous volume of water in the lake, Mauro says low levels of these chemicals are present nearly everywhere and and the combination is having adverse affects on the single-celled life forms at the base of the ecosystem.
“We’ve found that these chemicals can act synergistically with one another, so that there harmful effects are at much lower dosages when they’re combined.”
Teachers take back excitement of field research
Sixteen teachers from around the Great Lakes region spent a week on board the Lake Guardian working with Mauro, Mason and the other scientists.
Lyndsey Manzo with Ohio Sea Grant program coordinates the project. She says the goal is to bring the discoveries of field research back to the classroom.
Manzo says the educators look at research being done by scientists and, "We then can put together displays or lessons that use the data where students have to investigate. And we try to focus on developing inquiry lessons, so it’s not just direct instruction, but it’s letting them work through the data and come to their own conclusions.”
Manzo says the teachers ended the week on the lake by putting together presentations on what they learned. She says the one question they're focusing on is, “How do we impact Lake Erie?”
The answers include nutrient runoff that feeds toxic algae blooms, along with the microbeads, antidepressants and antibiotics that wash down our drains every day.
The Lake Guardian is monitoring Lake Erie and showing that the products we use are among the major threats to its health.