Contact lenses end up in the ocean endangering sealife

IMAGE Contact lenses recovered from treated sewage sludge could harm the environment.  view more  Credit Charles Rolsky

IMAGE Contact lenses recovered from treated sewage sludge could harm the environment. view more Credit Charles Rolsky

A new study on contact lenses is proving to be eye-opening. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that about 45 million Americans wear contact lenses.

His team's ongoing survey of contact lens wearers in Arizona, which at last count queried about 400 people, found that about one in five of the participants who wear lenses said they flush them down the sink or toilet.

To understand how lenses break down in sewage, Rolsky and his colleagues placed the corrective lenses in wastewater treatment tanks filled with hungry microorganisms. Still, the researchers say contact users should be diligent about disposing of their lenses properly, and that manufacturers should make it easier to recycle their products. In fact, the team estimates that at least six metric tonnes of lenses end up in wastewater each year in the US alone. "This leads to smaller plastic particles which would ultimately lead to the formation of microplastics", Kelkar says. "[The study researchers'] method of making assumptions and estimations is quite reasonable", she adds.

The American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, is a not-for-profit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. ACS is a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related information and research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. While contact lenses are far from the largest source of microplastic pollution in water, they appear to be a readily avoidable one. They found that 19 percent of contact lens wearers flushed them down the drain when they didn't need them anymore.

When the lenses make their way to a wastewater treatment facility, they do not biodegrade easily, the researchers report, and they may fragment and make their way into surface water. Rain could wash lenses into rivers and oceans, where they would float like tiny, tentacle-less jellyfish. Halden, Rolsky and a third member of the team, Varun Kelkar, are at the Biodesign Institute's Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University (ASU).

"It sounds like a very small problem, because the lenses themselves are tiny, but they come by the billions", Halden said.

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Halden said people don't think of the lenses as plastic waste because they feel like fluid, nearly like water.

Contact lenses are a godsend to those with ocular difficulties. He pointed out that some manufacturers have already begun recycling programs to reclaim the plastic from lenses.

"This is a pretty large number, considering roughly 45 million people in the US alone wear contact lenses", Charlie Rolsky, one of the ASU Ph.D. students who conducted the study, said in a statement.

Contact lens companies often provide no package instructions about where to dispose of lenses, the ASU researchers note.

Contacts tend to be denser than water, which means they sink, and this could ultimately pose a threat to aquatic life, especially bottom feeders that may ingest the contacts, researchers said. But they hope to change that.

Obviously, people shouldn't stop wearing contact lenses altogether. "That might have a drastic effect all by itself".

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