Microplastics Research Hub Aims to Unravel Health Impact in Changing Climate

Apr. 17, 2024

A new Rochester-based research center will study the lifecycle of microplastics, including its origin as plastic waste, distribution and movement in the Great Lakes freshwater ecosystem, and human exposure and health impact. The research will also focus on how climate change could intensify the environmental and health threats posed by microplastics. 

lake ontario getty 2
Lake Ontario.

The Lake Ontario Center for Microplastics and Human Health in a Changing Environment is a collaboration between the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and supported by $7.3 million in funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Science Foundation under the federal Oceans and Human Health program

“The center will seek to develop a better understanding of the interactions between plastic pollution, the Great Lakes environment, and human health in both current and projected real-world conditions,” said Katrina Korfmacher, PhD, a professor of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) and co-director of the new center. “This research will catalyze a new understanding of both environmental and human health aspects of microplastics, engage new groups in strategies to reduce the source of waste and mitigate exposure, and provide a model for similar approaches in other communities.”

“This funding gives us the opportunity to bring together environmental and health sciences researchers to tackle a truly global crisis,” said Christy Tyler, PhD, professor in the Thomas H. Gosnell School of Life Sciences at RIT and co-director of the center. “We plan to combine research on the quantity and characteristics of plastic in the places where people are most likely to encounter it, with research on how these particles impact our health. And as a result, we’ll be able to come up with a more holistic understanding of the potential harm of plastic pollution, and how we can develop targeted strategies to minimize it.”

A Growing, but Little Understood Threat

Microplastics, particles less than 5 mm in size, are produced from plastic waste, which over time is broken down into microscopic fragments that move easily through the food chain and persist in the environment. Common sources of plastic pollution include food wrappers, plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps, plastic bags, plastic straws, cigarette butts, tire-wear particles, and synthetic clothing. Plastic waste enters the environment via urban stormwater and agricultural runoff, and wastewater. Microplastics are ubiquitous, frequently difficult to detect and mitigate, and research has found the particles in human blood, heart, liver, and lung tissue, placenta, and breast milk. However, little is known about their long-term impact on human health. 

The Great Lakes hold more than 20 percent of global surface freshwater and are a source of drinking water, irrigation, fisheries, and recreation for more than 30 million people. While progress has been made in recent decades to improve the environmental health of the lakes, these gains are threatened by rising plastic pollution. Furthermore, climate change is causing shifts in water levels, precipitation patterns, temperature, acidity, and ice cover, all of which could worsen the risk posed by microplastics. 

Effects Amplified by Climate Shifts

The new center will undertake research projects that aim to understand how environmental changes may affect the movement and characteristics of microplastics in Lake Ontario, how microplastics interact with other contaminants, and the impact on inflammation and immune response in model biological systems. The goal is to develop and promote solutions that inform future research, community actions, and policy changes that will lessen the health effects associated with microplastics.

Tyler - RIT students sampling stormwater debris in the City of Rochester
RIT students sample stormwater debris in the City of Rochester.

One project builds on several years of collaborative work at RIT to understanding the input, transport, and ecological risk of plastic pollution in the Lake Ontario basin. The interdisciplinary team will be led by Tyler, and includes Matthew Hoffman, PhD, professor of Mathematics and Statistics, Nathan Eddingsaas, PhD, associate professor of Chemistry and Materials Science, Steven Day, PhD, professor and head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and André Hudson, PhD, professor and dean, College of Science.

Thia team will examine how climate-related factors, namely warmer weather and more severe storms, will increase the delivery of post-consumer plastic to Lake Ontario. Additionally, changes in water temperature and acidity will potentially drive changes in the breakdown of plastic to form microplastics, and in the way microplastic interacts with microbes and other organisms in the environment. The researchers will create advanced models to better predict and understand these dynamics and the risk to the environment and health. 

Another project, led by Lisa DeLouise, PhD, an associate professor in the University of Rochester Departments of Dermatology and Biomedical Engineering, will employ nanomembrane technologies to identify the presence and concentration of ultrafine microplastics in the water and air in the Lake Ontario ecosystem. Toxicity increases as size decreases, which makes it easier for particles to enter blood and tissue through ingestion and contact with the skin. Additionally, when these ultrafine particles reach the lakeshore, they can become airborne and inhaled. Studies will assess this mode of transport and toxicology in collaboration with Alison Elder, PhD, with the URMC Department of Environmental Medicine.

Using samples collected by the other researchers, another team led by Jacques Robert, PhD, professor and chair of the URMC Department of Microbiology and Immunology, will employ frogs as animal models to study how waterborne microplastics enter, move about, and accumulate in the body at different water temperatures anticipated due to global warming. This research will help scientists better understand the inflammatory and immune responses to microbes triggered by microplastics and the potential long-term health effects, especially if the exposure occurs in early development. 

Ultrathin silicon nanomembranes.

The research projects will be supported by a Materials and Metrology Facility Core, led by James McGrath, PhD, a professor of Biomedical Engineering with the University of Rochester and post-doctoral fellow Samantha Romanick, PhD, along with Iris Rivero, PhD, a professor of Industrial Systems Engineering at RIT. The team will support access and distribution of shared resources, including the ultrathin silicon nanomembranes that will be employed to collect and monitor water and airborne samples for microplastics.

Building on Decades of Leadership in Environmental Health Research

The center will leverage the experience, expertise, and resources of the URMC Department of Environmental Medicine and Environmental Health Sciences Center, which is has been continuously supported by a NIEHS core center grant for the last 48 years. The Department also has a decades-long tradition of leading a nationally recognized program in toxicology research and training programs. In 2023, the University of Rochester created the Institute for Human Health and the Environment to advance collaborative and innovative approaches to health research, education, and engagement to better understand how the environment influences health across the lifespan.

“The scope and complexity of research undertaken by the center has the potential to transform our understanding of the growing health threat posed by microplastics, and Rochester is uniquely positioned to answer these important scientific questions,” said Steve Dewhurst, PhD, vice president for Research at the University of Rochester. “The collective and complementary experience, expertise, and resources both at the University of Rochester and RIT make science of this scale possible. The ability to study microplastics throughout its journey in the environment and the impact on biological systems will reveal new insights and help create new models to mitigate plastic pollution.”  

RIT has a strong history of nationally funded scientific research to understand and combat critical environmental issues. Tyler, Hoffman, and a group of other RIT scientists have been working with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funding to lead interdisciplinary projects examining plastic waste entering the Great Lakes, and how to prevent and remove it. RIT’s collaborations with the Rochester Museum and Science Center, Seneca Park Zoo, Monroe County, the City of Rochester, and other local institutions continue to provide a joint effort in combating environmental concerns.

“This partnership between universities shows how local researchers can work together to address questions of global significance,” said Ryne Raffaelle, PhD, vice president for Research at RIT. “How microplastics, combined with climate change, impact the ways in which we live, and overall human health is something we need to investigate. This new center will be key to understanding, and hopefully mitigating, the convolution of these environmental impacts and their potential deleterious effects.”

“I’m proud to have helped secure millions in federal funding for this project that will help cement our community’s place as a leader in microplastics research,” said Congressman Joe Morelle. “This significant award will leverage the extraordinary work being done at the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology to fight back against the impacts of pollution and climate change. I congratulate them on this opportunity and look forward to our continued work together.”

The center will engage with a broad and diverse coalition of partners to both conduct community science and promote environmental health literacy. These activities include involving residents in efforts to monitor debris flows, and developing, evaluating, and disseminating outreach materials for audiences including youth, educators, community groups, and policy makers in both urban and rural settings.