Microplastics in the Ottawa River

We are excited to see that our report on microplastics in the Ottawa River continues to resonate with the public. However, we are concerned that these findings have recently been misrepresented.

It can be very rewarding to see our work resonate with the public. This includes a study we participated in in 2016 which aimed to understand the prevalence of microfibres in the Ottawa River. Last week, this study was cited in an article, and while we are very excited to see our 2017 work referenced, we are concerned that the findings have been taken out of context. We would like to clarify a few points.

The study we participated in illustrated that microplastics were present in almost every location of the Ottawa River. Of these samples 70-100% of the samples contained microfibres, small plastic fibres that come from a variety of sources, including clothing. These concentrations were comparable to other freshwater rivers where studies have been done. To put things in perspective, in every litre of water, 0.1 fragments of microfibers were found.

While in an ideal world we would not have plastic pollution in the environment, we also want to stress that these findings in no way show that the levels of microplastics found in the Ottawa River should keep you from swimming.

Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) were also mentioned in this news article. It is true that they can introduce untreated sewage into the river during periods of extreme rainfall. However, many municipalities have been working to reduce CSOs. The City of Ottawa has introduced a number of measures that have helped to reduce both the incidence and volume of CSOs into the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers. In fact, it has invested more than $200 million in the construction of a Combined Sewage Storage Tunnel that will further reduce the frequency of CSOs, keeping more microplastics and other contaminants out of your river. 

We are really fortunate to live in a city with multiple supervised, public beaches that provide fantastic locations for people to swim in the river throughout the summer months. The City of Ottawa and City of Gatineau both regularly test recreational water quality. Ottawa Riverkeeper also participates in recreational water quality monitoring to ensure that people access the water with greater confidence. It is part of our work to ensure that the Ottawa River remains drinkable, fishable, and swimmable.

We recognize that microplastics are an issue in the Ottawa River. While better treatment of sewage and wastewater would ameliorate the situation, we strongly disagree with the article’s conclusion that this is the only way forward. The best response is to find ways to reduce our overall plastic consumption as individuals and as a society, and prevent microplastics and microfibres from entering our water system at all. That is the key to finding a solution to this problem.

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