Contact lenses contribute to increasing microplastic pollution

Jennifer Chae a beauty blogger from Kansas City shows off an Asian style circle lens on the tip of her finger in Overland Park Kan

Americans use about 14 billion contact lenses every year, resulting in an estimated 50,000 pounds winding up in sinks and toilets.

That failure to break down led the researchers to a startling conclusion: as much as 23,000 kilograms of lenses (about 50,000 pounds) may accumulate in sewage sludge in the USA each year. "This leads to smaller plastic particles which would ultimately lead to the formation of microplastics".

"These are medical devices - you would not expect them to be super-biodegradable", the Director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University, Rolf Halden, told the Times.

The inspiration for this work came from personal experience.

Halden, Charles Rolsky and a third member of the team, Varun Kelkar, began to investigate.

A new report reveals that a shocking amount of contact lens users - almost 20 percent - dispose of those little plastic circles in a terribly irresponsible way, by flushing them down the toilet or the drain of the sink.

The survey conducted by the team included 400 contact lens wearers, and they discovered that between 15 and 20 per cent have flushed their contact lenses down a toilet or a sink in the past. "We'd love to have a dialogue [with manufacturers] and establish a solid protocol for consumers to dispose of or even recycle their contact lenses", Rolsky says.

"This is a pretty large number, considering roughly 45 million people in the United States alone wear contact lenses", said Rolsky.

Do you flush your contact lenses, rather than put them in the garbage? You might want to stop doing that
Contact lenses contribute to increasing microplastic pollution

They examined the fate of 13 different contact-lens brands made from nine different types of plastic polymers.

The calculation of how many lenses end up in our wastewater plants and habitat hinged on a variety of data sources. Wastewater sludge is often spread over land for soil conditioning; from there, any microplastics have an entry point into land-based ecosystems.

"We know that whatever's in sludge can make its way into runoff from heavy rains, back into surface water and that is a conduit to the oceans; there is the potential of these lenses being taken on quite a journey".

The researchers found that contact lenses are so flexible that they can sometimes slide through the physical barriers meant to filter out nonbiological waste at treatment plants.

It's another form of plastic affecting our environment. Some eventually find their way to the human food supply, which could lead to unwanted human exposures to plastic contaminants and pollutants that stick to the surfaces of the plastics.

Analyzing what happens to contact lenses and lens fragments once emitted by wastewater-treatment plants has been a challenge for researchers.

That is because lenses do not break down completely in sewer systems. Second, the unusual plastics used in contact lenses - a combination of poly (methylmethacrylate), silicones and fluoropolymers to create a soft material that allows oxygen to pass through the lens to the eye - are not routinely screened for environmental monitoring studies. Well, now contact lens manufacturers don't include any information on the packaging about how to dispose of the used product.

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