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Microplastics in the Canadian aquatic environment: Biological impacts and mechanisms to inform decision-making


Eight million tonnes a year or a garbage truck full every minute—that’s how much plastic ends up in the oceans each year according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Fragments of larger plastic debris and manufactured micro-sized plastics are widespread in freshwater and marine environments. A recent study found plastics in all 107 water samples taken from Great Lakes tributaries, with 98 percent of the plastic particles sampled measuring less than 4.75 millimetres in diameter. Marine organisms can ingest these particles, with uncertain consequences for their health.

This research will assess the uptake and effects of micro- and nano-sized plastics on aquatic life in marine and freshwater ecosystems in Canada. Impacts will be examined at a range of cellular levels using state-of-the-art in vitroFootnote 1 and in vivoFootnote 2 techniques. In vitro studies will explore the potential for particle transport across cell membranes and membrane disruption by micro- and nano-plastics. Fluorescently- labelled microplastic particles will enable researchers to assess uptake routes into a Rainbow Trout gill cell line. Through in vivo experiments, the study will gain new insights into the physical and biological impacts of microplastics and associated organic contaminants on both freshwater (Water Flea, Zebrafish, and Rainbow Trout) and marine (Rainbow Trout) species. The study will also begin exploring the potential for other water-borne contaminants, such as pharmaceuticals, to adhere to the surface of microplastics and increase their uptake. This research will provide Fisheries and Oceans Canada with critical information for developing regulations on exposure levels for microplastics in Canadian aquatic environments. It will also increase knowledge of which types of microplastics are most hazardous to fish, which could inform the design of safer plastic products.

Program Name

National Contaminants Advisory Group (NCAG)


2017 – 2020



Principal Investigator(s)

Dr. Nathalie Tufenkji
Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering; Canada Research Chair (Tier I) in Biocolloids and Surfaces
McGill University

Dr. Greg Goss
Professor, Department of Biological Sciences
University of Alberta

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