Joaquim Goes did not set out to be an expert on microplastics: those minuscule fragments of plastic, smaller than one-fifth of an inch, that have emerged as the oceans’ biggest invisible scourge.
As a marine biologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in Palisades, N.Y., his main concern was phytoplankton physiology and how it might predict the responses of marine ecosystems to global climate change.
It was on a NASA-sponsored ocean-mapping expedition along the east coast of Korea in 2016 that he first encountered “strange particles” clinging to the phytoplankton in his water samples, Goes told the audience at the Change Fashion conference in New York City in November.
A researcher from the Navy, who was drying bits of sediment on filters, bungled the oven settings by hitting Celsius instead of Fahrenheit. Before long, an acrid smell began to waft through the ship. At first, nobody on board couldn’t fathom the cause. “We thought that there was an electric failure on the ship,” Goes recalled. Then, the source of the smell revealed itself: the Navy scientist’s filters were “loaded” with plastics, and they were burning up.
Soon, Goes was seeing microplastics everywhere he looked. The Hudson and East Rivers, he discovered, brimmed with specks of plastic that soaked up water-borne toxins, such as pharmaceuticals, like sponges. Catches dredged in Newtown Creek, a tributary of the East River off Wall Street, were laden with atenolol, a hypertension medication. “Those guys are probably overmedicating themselves,” he said.