Experts call Tennessee River "River of Plastic"

Trash floating in the Tennessee River
Trash floating in the Tennessee River(WVLT)
Published: May. 21, 2019 at 6:19 PM EDT
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As inviting as the Tennessee River looks on a warm day, experts said a closer look shows something that shouldn't be in the water.

In fact, those who study waterways around the world said the Tennessee River is more like a river of plastic, recording a higher number of microplastics than any other river they have studied.

"We're at a crisis point, this is a tipping point," University of Tennessee Arboretum education coordinator Michelle Campanis said a new study shows the Tennessee River has more microplastics, or broken down bits of plastic from litter and landfills, than any other river in the world.

"In terms of the other types of pollution, pharmaceuticals, heavy metal, the Tennessee River really isn't so bad," she said. "The microplastics are astronomically higher than any other river they've studied."

A microplastic is considered a plastic particle that has been broken down to five millimeters or smaller, which is about the size of a pencil eraser.

Sewanee geology professor Dr. Martin Knoll conducted the study along with Dr. Andreas Fath, who swam the 652 miles of the river over 34 days in 2017 as both a scientific study and river health campaign. Knoll said he worries birds and fish are mistaking microplastics for food.

"They potentially ingest a lot of microplastic materials. I'm quite concerned about the impact of the health of aquatic animals," he said.

It isn't just animals he worries about.

"People that drink Tennessee River water, and that's a lot of people, Knoxville, Huntsville and Chattanooga, might ingest some microplastics ,too, and we just don't know what these microplastics' impact is in humans," Knoll explained.

Knoll said it is safe to swim in the river, and not harmful to swallow some water, but his concern is that the Tennessee River feeds into the Ohio River, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, which he said means the microplastics found here could be contaminating other waterways as well.

"The big thing we talk about in hiking is leave no trace, have that same mindset on the lake and really thinking about the things we consume," said Campanis.

Campanis said things like recycling, using reusable products and throwing away trash help reverse the problem.

"The little things add up in contributing to the problem, but the little things add up in fixing the problem as well," said Campanis.

Dr. Knoll is presenting his findings on the Tennessee River June 6 at 7 p.m. at the U.T. Arboretum in Oak Ridge. The event is free and does not require registration.

To follow Dr. Knoll's blog click


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