Wastewater treatment plants cannot capture plastic microparticles, so viruses attached to them can travel to areas beach and be ingested by bathers, with the health risks that this entails.
Scientists at the University of Stirling (UK) demonstrated for the first time that rotavirus, which causes diarrhea and upset stomach, can survive up to three days and remain infectious by attaching to microplastics in fresh water.
Richard Quilliam, principal investigator of the paper published in the journal Environmental Pollution, highlighted that wastewater treatment plants cannot capture microplastics. “Even if a sewage treatment plant is doing its best to clean up the waste, the discharged water still has microplastics in it, which are then carried down the river, into the estuary, and end up on the beach,” he noted.
“Nope we were unsure how well viruses could survive ‘hitchhiking’ in plastic in the environment, but they survive and remain infectious,” he added.
Likewise, he explained that microplastics are so small that they could be ingested by swimmers or by children on the beaches. “And if the viruses are then released from the plastic into water or sand, their persistence in the environment increases,” he observed.
“This research is largely a proof of concept to do more research on how long pathogens can survive by binding to microplastics, as we only tested for three days, and what happens to them next,” Quilliam said.