The Arizona State University study suggests that much of the plastic material then ends up in waste water treatment plants. So it is unclear how wastewater treatment affects them. The first part was an anonymous survey of 139 contact-lens wearers and non-wearers.
"When the lens plastic loses some of its structural strength, it will break down physically".
The researchers are presenting their results today at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). The plastic as a microplastic can also enter waterways through runoff where they can again enter the foodchain as microplastic is often mistaken by aquatic creatures as food. 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. By using data from the major contact lens manufacturers about the various types of contacts purchased (daily, biweekly or monthly), the ASU researchers were able to calculate that Americans wear a total of 13.2 to 14.7 billion lenses a year.
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.
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Analyzing what happens to contact lenses and lens fragments once emitted by wastewater-treatment plants has been a challenge for researchers. And because wastewater industry reports suggest about 55 percent of that waste is dumped into soils, the researchers estimate that 11,000 to 12,650 kilograms (about 24,000 to 28,000 pounds) of contaminant-harboring contact lens fragments end up in US dirt annually.
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.
Graduate research assistant Varun Kelkar said: 'We found there were noticeable changes in the bonds of the contact lenses after long term treatment with the plant's microbes'.
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Although contact lens pollution is a concern, it is dwarfed by the eight million metric tons of larger plastic that clogs our oceans every year.
To help address their fate during treatment, the researchers exposed five polymers found in many manufacturers' contact lenses to anaerobic and aerobic microorganisms present at wastewater treatment plants for varying times and performed Raman spectroscopy to analyse them.
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.
The authors of the study say that lenses should be recycled where this is possible, but if not they should be disposed of by putting them in with other solid, non-recyclable waste.
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A press conference on this topic will be held Monday, August 20, at 9:30 a.m. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.