Products that residents use each day like plastic products and anti-depressants may be making their way into local waterways, something researchers with the IISD Experimental Lakes Area will be studying this summer.

While plastic products have long been an issue for waterways and their ecosystems, a recent concern emerging for researchers surrounds the effects of anti-depressants once they make their way through a person’s body and eventually into the waterways.

As well as a new microplastics study this summer, IISD ELA researchers will also be preparing small-scale laboratory and water-based studies on the effects of the prescription drug venlafaxine when it's introduced to freshwater environments.

“It’s a question that we have around all medical compounds. What happens to them after they pass through the human body?” asks Executive Director Matthew McCandless. “It’s important to figure out. Because it’s dissolved, it doesn’t get taken out of the sewage by wastewater treatment plants, so it ends up going into lakes and rivers. We really need to understand this.”

Venlafaxine, an extremely common anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication, is listed as one of the top five most-consumed drugs by Canadians between the ages of 25 and 64. Researchers note that anti-depressant prescriptions have seen an increase throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, likely due to ongoing restrictions.

“It’s happening everywhere. Every town and city in Canada is adding venlafaxine to the water. But we don’t really know what that means,” notes McCandless, who says work to prepare enclosures within ELA lakes is underway.

Freshwater scientists, otherwise known as limnologists, say a large portion of medicine delivered through pharmaceuticals can be excreted directly, unchanged. While the amount is generally not enough to kill the organism, changes in an organism’s behaviour have been reported.

After being exposed to varying concentrations of anti-depressant compounds that you would typically find in freshwater environments, fish showed slower response times and would exit dangerous situations at a slower pace.

“What happens in the environment when these fish are exposed to it and it affects their behaviour? Are they slower to evade predators? Do they become less effective hunters? It’s only by studying these things within an enclosure that we’re able to figure this out,” adds McCandless.

As well as their venlafaxine studies, researchers with the IISD ELA will also be safely adding microplastic particles to controlled lake ecosystems to study the plastic’s effects on the lake, fish and the overall ecosystem.

Canada is estimated to only recycle about 10 percent of the nation’s plastic products, leading to roughly 3 million tonnes of waste each year – much of which breaks down and enters into our lakes and waterways.

“We know they’re everywhere. They’re in every lake,” said McCandless. “But we don’t really know what they do to ecosystems once they’re there. So we’ll see what actually happens to the plants and animals that live in the lake.”

Microplastics are 5 millimetres or smaller plastic particles that have broken down from larger plastic products like bottles and plastic bags. A 2016 study showed wastewater treatment plants can remove 98 percent of these microplastic particles, but up to 65 million particles are still being released into waterways each day.

“We already know that in aquatic systems, organisms can swallow plastics which may lead to reproductive issues, behavioural changes and even starvation,” explained researcher Mike Rennie. “But to truly understand plastic pollution and tackle it successfully, we need to know more.”

A major contributor to microplastics in water is fibres from synthetic clothing being collected from your washing machine and eventually making their way into the water. In a recent study on Lake Winnipeg, researchers found densities of 1 microplastic particle for every square meter of water.

In 2014, it was estimated oceans had 270,000 tonnes of plastic floating on their surface, and up to 13 million additional tonnes of plastic are added each year globally. The microplastics project is in collaboration with Lakehead University, the University of Toronto and Queen’s University.

After the summer, the IISD hopes to take their findings to private industries and governments to develop policies to protect our waterways. In 2017, studies similar to the ELA’s pushed Canada and the United States to remove and ban microplastics from cosmetic products and scrubs.

“We’re really excited,” says McCandless. “The pandemic really slowed us down. We still managed to get some work done, collected data and did some work on oil spills. But we’re excited to get going on these studies that were put off due to the pandemic.”

Researchers and staff note all COVID-19 protocols will continue to be followed while the research is taking place, and they’re hoping to open up to additional research groups and students once restrictions allow.

“As always, safety will be our first priority, with only a select group of researchers physically working at the site—more than were allowed at the site last year,” said Deputy Director Pauline Gerrard, who notes researchers will be required to self-isolate when they arrive.

The IISD-ELA is the only place on earth where researchers can experiment on over 50 real lakes and watersheds to discover the long-term impact of human activities within the natural environment.

For the last 53 years, those lakes and researchers have taught us what causes algal blooms; the effects of acid rain, mercury, dams and oil spills on fresh water and much more, including tracking a roughly half-degree increase in northwestern Ontario’s temperatures each decade.

Formerly managed by the federal government, the Experimental Lakes Area was transferred to the International Institute for Sustainable Development in 2014, after Ottawa’s funding cuts in 2012. It’s been an ongoing scientific research site since 1968.