Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Our lives are full of plastics. Bags, bottles, packaging, you name it. And all of those things can break down into tiny little pieces called microplastics. 

Researchers at the University of Rhode Island are taking a close look at how many of those microplastics are in the Narragansett Bay. So, one of our Possibly reporters Will Malloy tagged along to learn more about their work. 

Will Malloy: This September, I got to spend some time with Victoria Fulfer, a Ph.D. candidate at URI.

Victoria Fulfer: Right now we are at Rocky Point State Park up in Warwick, Rhode Island. 

Will Malloy: Victoria did some of her research on microplastics here. 

Victoria Fulfer: Microplastics are small plastic particles ... about the size of a small bead down to the scale where you would have to use a microscope to see it.

Will Malloy: We already know that broken-down plastics get into our air and water, and even our food. But Victoria’s study was the first one to look at the Narragansett Bay.

Megan Hall: What did the study find out? 

Will Malloy: I’ll let Victoria answer that question…

Victoria Fulfer: We did find a lot more microplastics than we really expected for this type of an estuary.

Megan Hall: Give me a sense – how much is “a lot more”?  

Will Malloy: Well, The amount of plastic they found could make a solid object the size of a house. But the problem is, all that plastic is in tiny, tiny particles spread throughout mud and sand at the bottom of the bay. 

Megan Hall: But are they doing something dangerous? 

Will Malloy: The truth is, we don’t know for sure. But there are a lot of animals that filter through that mud and sand to eat.

Victoria Fulfer: So you have … clams, quahogs, oysters, things like that. You also have crabs, and then you have smaller organisms, such as worms.

Will Malloy: And studies have shown that microplastics can block mussels and oysters from feeding and play a role in developmental delays in crabs.  

Megan Hall: So, does this mean I need to stop eating shellfish caught in the bay? Are my Rhode Island beach days a thing of the past? 

Will Malloy: Whoa whoa whoa! Let’s start with the big picture. Unfortunately, microplastics are now everywhere - in the air, in the clouds, at the bottom of the ocean, and yes, in Narragansett Bay.

Megan Hall: This is not helping.

Will Malloy: We don’t really know what their effects are, but Victoria says, it’s ok to keep eating seafood because microplastics mostly end up in their guts.

Victoria Fulfer: If you're eating, for example, a crab you wouldn't necessarily be eating their gut. And so if the microplastics are only in the stomach of the crab, then it's less of a concern. I don't think there's a cause for concern to say stop eating seafood.

Will Malloy: And swimming is probably totally fine too. 

Victoria Fulfer: I don't think there's a large risk for exposure when you're at the beach. If you're not drinking the water or eating the sand, I hope… completely avoiding them is almost impossible at the levels of pollution we have now.

Will Malloy: So the beach is really the same amount of exposure as anywhere else. 

Megan Hall: That’s a relief, I guess? But what if I am still worried about microplastics in general? What can I do?

Will Malloy: Microplastics are part of the larger issue of plastic pollution in general – So anything you can do to reduce plastic pollution will help, from using less, to better recycling, to being careful about how you throw it away. 

Victoria Fulfer: Your Tupperware when you put it in the microwave is shedding microplastics into your food. Anything nonplastic is going to limit your exposure

Megan Hall: Ok! That sounds really reasonable. Thanks, Will!

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Possibly is a co-production of The Public’s Radio, Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society and Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative.