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Denver students find harmful microplastics in 16 major Colorado waterways

Colorado high school students make startling discovery with microplastics and our waterways
Colorado high school students make startling discovery with microplastics and our waterways 02:25

Toxic microplastics from everyday items like water bottles and clothing have been discovered in several major Colorado waterways, and it is local high school and college students who have made the discovery. 


The student researchers tested 16 waterways across Colorado, and they found microplastics in all of them. See a map of all of the locations tested below or by clicking here.

"The more microplastics we found, I kind of went from, 'okay, there are microplastics,' to like, 'oh my god, that's a lot of microplastics,'" recalls Gabriel Curcio, 17, a junior at Denver's East High School, and one of the student volunteers on the study. "I knew it was like that in lots of other areas, but I just didn't think Colorado would be this bad too."

He and a student at North High School volunteered on the study this spring. They were guided by a University of Denver graduate student, Lexi Kilbane, who volunteered as part of an internship to lead the study. 

"Finding plastics in 16 out of 16 of the water sites that we looked at, demonstrates that there's already too much microplastic pollution in Colorado," Kilbane said. 

The students conducted the study by taking water samples with sanitized glass jars. The students looked at the samples under a microscope to identify any microscopic plastic materials. 

She says the results are concerning for local ecosystems.

"Animals typically mistake these tiny plastic particles for food and eat them, and then they remain in their systems," Kilbane said. "This can result in injury, internal disruption, and death for some animals. Once they've entered the food chain, these microplastics, they can continue to go up the food chain, they're accumulating harmful chemicals the whole way, potentially becoming more dangerous, and that's something that we later can consume as humans."

The study has its limitations because it only found the presence of microplastics in local waters, not how much plastic pollution was there. 

Regardless, the researchers hope the study will open doors for future research and positive changes. 


"I think we need to consider the near permanence of every plastic item that we produce and consume," Kilbane said. 

The Colorado Public Interest Research Group helped sponsor the study. CoPIRG Director Danny Katz also hopes the research will help generate policy changes that can improve Colorado's waterways in the future.

"I think we see that studies build on studies," Katz said. "We absolutely hope that this galvanizes future research, and future questions to be raised, not only just what's in our waterways, but more importantly, how do we how do we find where the sources are, and how do we stop those sources... so, are there ways that we can work to get companies to reduce those microfibers... and finally, are there things that local governments or state governments can do to support reuse?"

As an example, Katz pointed to a recent policy change in Oregon that's going to allow people to bring their own reusable containers to restaurants when they're taking their food to go. 

"Before that, there were health codes that basically made it so that you had to use the disposable products, and so are there simple tweaks we can make that can encourage more reuse in our society," Katz said. 

Curcio says at the very least, it's made a big change for him. He says the study has inspired him to make small amendments to his everyday household life, like installing a better filter in his parents' washing machine to filter out microfibers from going down the drain.


"It feels like I'm creating an impact, and that's like a really good feeling, just to know that I'm doing something positive for the world," Curcio said. "I think I will be a lot more conscious of where our plastics are going, and on what kind of single-use plastics we're using... I think another big thing is that it's not just on one person... always make sure that you're doing all this microplastic stuff as a community, working to be more environmentally friendly. That's how we really create the most change, working together."

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