Despite their small size, contact lenses could be significantly contributing to microplastic pollution in waterways, according to a new study by scientists at Arizona State University. After conducting a nationwide survey of contact lens-wearers, researchers found that contact lenses have a significant the environmental cost.
Many contact lenses are designed for single-day use and people commonly wash them down the drain at the end of the day. These used contact lenses end up in wastewater treatment facilities, and since they are transparent, can go undetected. Made from poly(methylmethacrylate), silicones, and fluoropolymers, contacts may also require alternative treatment to be safely disposed of than other types of plastics.
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Once in water systems, contact lenses break down into smaller particles and shards called microplastics, which make their past wastewater filters into the ocean, harming the animals that consume them. According to the Guardian, microplastics that latch onto a single coral, can impact the health of an entire reef, causing rampant disease. Microplastics also make their way through the food chain from bottom-feeders, to larger fish, and to humans.
The study surveyed 400 contact users, finding that up to 20% said they typically flushed their lenses down the toilet.
“Considering roughly 45 million people in the US alone wear contact lenses, amounting to 1.8 to 3.36 billion lenses flushed per year, or about 20 to 23 metric tons of wastewater-borne plastics annually,” Charles Rolsky, a member of the research team, explained.
Compared to the 8 million tons of plastic that end up in our oceans each year, contact lenses account for only a small fraction of plastic pollution; however, the incorrect disposal of contact lenses still results in 6 to 10 metric tons of plastic lenses in US wastewater facilities every year.The environmental costs of contact lenses should not be overlooked. Instead of washing used lenses down the sink or flushing them down the toilet, people should actually throw plastic lenses in the trash to avoid contaminating water sources and adding to ocean plastic waste.