How flushed contact lenses add to microplastic pollution in waterways

Plastic pollution: 'Stop flushing contact lenses down the loo'

"But I started to wonder, has anyone done research on what happens to these plastic lenses?"

The research estimates billions of contact lenses may be flushed every year, some 22 metric tons, according to the Times.

"We began looking into the U.S. market and conducted a survey of contact lens wearers".

The authors of the study surveyed wearers in the United States and found that 15-20% of them flick their lenses down sinks and toilets, meaning they will most likely end up in waste water treatment plants.

"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.

Over the last decade, the use of softer plastic contact lenses has grown rapidly with people using daily, weekly or monthly disposables in greater numbers than ever before. They end up in wastewater treatment plants - and that's where things get a little dicey. Turns out that when people wash their lenses down the drain or flush them down the toilet instead of sticking them in the trash, the result is some six to 10 metric tons of plastic lenses floating around wastewater treatment plants in the US alone each year.

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

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To work out the impact of waste water plants on these materials, the researchers exposed five polymers in contact lenses to anaerobic and aerobic micro-organisms commonly found in these treatment facilities.

The microplastics formed by contact lenses could also be making a mark on land.

Further, the plastics used in contact lenses are different from other plastic waste, such as polypropylene, which can be found in everything from auto batteries to textiles. For about every two pounds of wastewater sludge, a pair of contact lenses typically can be found. Alternatively, Bausch & Lomb offers a recycling program for any brand of contact lenses and packaging. These bonds had been slightly, but noticeably weakened, indicating that the lens was on the road to disintegration.

Tiny bits of plastic from many sources have been spotted in the oceans and other bodies of water, where they may be ingested by fish, corals and other animals.

"When the lens plastic loses some of its structural strength, it will break down physically. This leads to smaller plastic particles which would ultimately lead to the formation of microplastics", Kelkar says. "That presents threats to that particular organism and anything that feeds on it" - including humans, further up the food chain. Some microplastics eventually can find their way into the human food supply, causing inadvertent uptake and unwanted human exposures to both the plastic polymer and a spectrum of environmental contaminants that tend to stick to the surface of plastics.

Contact lens packages don't now tell users how to dispose of them, said Halden, who suggested that companies should add labels recommending that contacts be put in the garbage rather than washed down the drain.

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