Coastwide
Fisheries biologist Helen Dangel examines a sample taken from a mussel in Starrigavan Estuary. (Photo by Katherine Rose/KCAW)

Is your dirty laundry making dirty mollusks? Traces of microplastics offer clues.

Researchers in Sitka have been looking at the impact of microplastics on local shellfish. Their findings illustrate a possible connection between microplastics in butter clams and household laundry.

Helen Dangel sits in her office at the Sitka Tribe of Alaska research building. The fisheries biologist is dressed like one: She wears a white lab coat and looks at slides through a microscope.

She peers down at a sample from a butter clam. She spots three pearls, each about a millimeter in size — so small you can barely see them with the naked eye.

But she sees something else under the microscope — something less natural. It looks like a hair, but it’s actually a tiny piece of plastic: a “microplastic.”

As the name suggests, microplastics are miniscule pieces of plastic debris, and they’re littering the world’s oceans. Consumed by fish and wildlife, microplastics could have unhealthy consequences. The research into health effects from ingesting microplastics remain inconclusive. But nobody’s saying it’s good.

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