Microplastics and the History of Water Protection

Conservation // October 19, 2022

The Wissahickon Valley Park is a special place that warrants preservation and protection. At Friends of the Wissahickon, we do just that– for nearly 100 years our organization has worked tirelessly to keep the Wissahickon clean, accessible, and ecologically healthy. However, our work cannot be done without the support of our volunteers. Those who come out daily, weekly, or even once to help steward this unique space have a direct impact on the longevity of the Wissahickon. 

And there has never been a better time to get involved than now. We have already seen the devastating effects of climate change in the damage Hurricane Ida caused last summer– and unfortunately, other environmental disasters are showing themselves on the horizon. One of which is the abundance of microplastics in our watersheds. 

We’ve asked our friends at the Science History Institute to share some insight into the history of water protection in Philadelphia and how microplastics put the health of our environment (and ourselves) at risk. 

To make a difference in keeping plastics out of the Wissahickon Valley Park, please join us this Saturday at our Lincoln Drive Cleanup or our Halloween at Harvey Street event on 10/29! 

Microplastics and the History of Water Protection

By Jesse Smith of Science History Institute

As the Science History Institute explores in its newest exhibition, Downstream, the history of protecting our water and keeping it clean is long and ongoing. When the city of Philadelphia needed a clean water supply more than 200 years ago, it was able to tap the relatively untouched Schuylkill. But over time, populations grew, industries expanded, and new synthetic chemicals made for labs, lawns, farms, and factories spilled out into the broader environment. 

During the 1800s and 1900s, we learned that the actions of people living, working, and playing in one place could threaten the health and safety of people doing the same in another. States, the federal government, citizen activists, and combinations of all three intervened to help clean and protect water. In turn, they helped protect people and the environment. But their work is not finished.

In laboratories across the country, scientists remain alert to the dangers that emerge as new materials make their way into our waterways. Building on more than two centuries of water research and protection, they work to understand how materials that improve life in certain places—such as antibiotics and fire-fighting foams—can pose risks when they’re instead found in water. 

One of the newest materials capturing the attention of scientists across the globe are teeny, tiny pieces of plastic. Plastics so small you often need a microscope to see them. Plastics we call microplastics

The term microplastic refers to any piece of plastic smaller than five millimeters, which is about the size of a sesame seed. Microplastics often come from larger plastics. Plastic bottles and bags degrade into microplastics. Rubber tires give off microplastics as they wear and clothing made from synthetic materials sheds tiny microplastic fibers over time. 

Scientists aren’t exactly sure what dangers microplastics pose to human, animal, and environmental health, but concern over microplastic beads in such products as toothpaste and face scrubs led the U.S. to ban them from cosmetics in 2015. What is certain is that more research is needed on the topic. Scientists continue to study the types, amounts, and possible threats of microplastics increasingly found in waters around the world.  

In the meantime, the more plastic we keep out of our waterways, the better. Visit the Science History Institute’s free museum to learn about the more than 200-year history of Philadelphia’s successes and failures in protecting water in the Delaware Valley and beyond.