Published: Tue, August 21, 2018
Money | By Armando Alvarado

Flushing contact lenses contributes to water pollution, study says

Flushing contact lenses contributes to water pollution, study says

"We found that 15 to 20 percent of contact-lens wearers are flushing the lenses down the sink or toilet", Charles Rolsky, a PHD student involved in the study, explains.

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. While contact lenses are far from the largest source of microplastic pollution in water, they appear to be a readily avoidable one. They estimate that billions of contact lenses - weighing at least 22 metric tons - may be flushed in the United States every year. "This is a pretty large number, considering roughly 45 million people in the USA alone wear contact lenses, amounting to 1.8-3.36 billion lenses flushed per year, or about 20-23 metric tons of wastewater-borne plastics annually".

"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. But unlike the daunting task of slashing grocery bag and water bottle use, there's an easy way to prevent contact lenses from becoming pollutants, the ASU researchers note.

So, Halden and his team started with a survey of 139 individuals, both contact lens wearers and non-wearers.

"This might have been a different experiment had there been labeling on a lot of these boxes sort of specifying "maybe dispose of these with solid waste and please avoid having them go down a drain"; maybe it would be a different story", he said.

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

He added: 'This is a pretty large number, considering roughly 45 million people in the USA alone wear contact lenses'.

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"We found that there were noticeable changes in the bonds of the contact lenses after long-term treatment with the plant's microbes", Kelkar said in a statement. 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. So it is unclear how wastewater treatment affects them.

Mr Kelkar said: 'When the plastic loses some of its structural strength, it will break down physically. But you might not have realized that even the smallest pieces of plastic, like contact lenses for example, can be a part of the problem.

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

It's another form of plastic affecting our environment.

"They are a real improvement in quality of life and are a justified use of plastic, so if we decide as a society that we want to use plastic for these purposes, we should also present the consumer with the chance to get rid of these materials in a responsible fashion". These animals are part of a long food chain. This $2.7 billion US market has made contact lenses more comfortable and disposable.

Some of these creatures then get eaten by larger fish and the lenses eventually find their way to the human food supply.

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