CLOSING THE GAPS in Understanding ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH IMPACTS OF MARINE PLASTICS Coleen Suckling’s work studying plastics pollution starts with a glass mason jar. On a boat or by the shore, the University of Rhode Island (URI) assistant professor’s team of students and staff draw water samples from Narragansett Bay to measure the amount of microplastics in the water. And that’s just step one. The water sample heads to Suckling’s Kingston Campus lab where air filters ensure airborne plastic particles stay out of the sample. Researchers work on so-called clean benches that isolate the sample from contaminants shedding from clothing or equipment. The team then follows a detailed process it developed to parse plastics from biological material. First, chemical alkaline digestion removes biological material from the sample, then laboratory-grade strong salt chemicals float the plastics away from heavier materials like sand, vacuum filtration cleanses the sample, and the addition of dyes exposes tiny plastics under specialized microscopes. Control samples with intentionally added plastics prove the method works. “This is partly why a lot of people don’t do this work,” said Suckling, an assistant professor of fisheries, animal and veterinary science. “It’s very labor intensive and without proper clean controls, we would be walking contamination disasters for experiments like this.” written by CHRIS BARRETT ’08

Photo by Jason Jaacks

URI Initiative Plastics: Land to Sea SPRING | 2021 Page 37

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