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Scientists Search For Source Of Microplastics In Lake Tahoe Basin

A sunset at Whale Beach.
Bob Tregilus
CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (7/10/2020)
A sunset at Whale Beach.

Researchers at the Desert Research Institute in Reno are teaming up with League to Save Lake Tahoe citizen scientists to find the source of microplastics in the Lake Tahoe Basin. The Sierra Nevada Ally reporter Brian Bahouth has the story.

Last summer, Monica Arienzo, an assistant professor of hydrology at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Reno, discovered microplastics in the water of Lake Tahoe and snow of the nearby Sierra. The problem with microplastics she learned, they’re everywhere.

“Everywhere we’ve looked, we’ve identified microplastics. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are about the size of a pencil eraser and smaller. So we look down to a size of about a bacteria cell size,” Arienzo said in a phone interview. “And we’ve been finding these pretty much everywhere we look.”

Dr. Arienzo and team have started using a specialized microscope to identify what captured particles are made of, a groundbreaking technique of infrared spectroscopy.

“We can actually look at the particle and say, ‘is it a nylon, microplastic, or is it a polyethylene microplastic?’ That’s really important for saying something about where they came from. So for example, if it was nylon, that indicates that it probably came from clothing,” Arienzo said.

Arienzo says she found nylon fibers in a remote snow sample north of Truckee, and that discovery led to a curiosity in clothing dryer emissions.

For the next three weeks, a cohort of League to Save Lake Tahoe citizen scientists will use a special mesh screen to capture particles from their dryer vents for analysis. The Microplastics Laboratory at DRI will then be better able to determine the impact of dryer vent emissions on the Lake Tahoe environment and recommend a solution.

KUNR Contributor Brian Bahouth is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Sierra Nevada Ally. To read more on this topic, visit The Sierra Nevada Ally.

Want to know what to do about the microplastics problem? Here are 7 simple, evidence-based solutions to target your efforts.

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