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Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Applied Sciences students lend hands to cleanse beaches

ECO-MANAGEMENT: Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Research Group, Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Adetunji Awe; Master’s students, Komlan Apetogbor and Asmat Khan; Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability Research Focus Area group leader, Prof Beatrice Opeolu; Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Omoniyi Pereao and Master’s student Wakuenda. ECO-MANAGEMENT: Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Research Group, Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Adetunji Awe; Master’s students, Komlan Apetogbor and Asmat Khan; Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability Research Focus Area group leader, Prof Beatrice Opeolu; Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Omoniyi Pereao and Master’s student Wakuenda.

The Faculty of Applied Sciences’ Extended Curriculum Programme Coordinator, Prof Beatrice Opeolu, and her Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry Research Group heeded the call to participate in cleaning beaches.

The call to remove plastic nurdles that were spilled by a ship into the ocean was made by the Western Cape Government.

Postgraduate students and the postdoctoral fellows went to Milnerton Beach as part of an exercise in which they were able to see the importance and relevance of their research.  Opeolu said the Beat Plastic Pollution campaign was launched in 2018 by the United Nations to call for global attention to the harm and risks of plastic pollution to humans and the environment.

She led the campaign at CPUT in 2018 and seminars, panel discussions, and community cleaning activities were subsequently organised. The awareness created has resulted in a shift from the use of single-use plastics at some of CPUT’s activities.

“Plastics in water may be visible or invisible fragments; these fragments are referred to as macroplastics, mesoplastics and microplastics, depending on their sizes. They get into waterbodies from waste discharges, wastewater treatment plants and household products, among others,” added Opeolu.

She said the different types of plastics that have been found in the water included low and high-density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, foamed polystyrene, nylon, thermoplastic polyester and polyvinyl chloride.  Opeolu stated that the plastics originate from packaging materials, netting, plastic bags, cigarette filters, etc. She cautioned that plastics ingested by aquatic organisms may lead to adverse effects on ecosystem functions.

“Plastics have the potential to adversely affect the digestive tract, respiratory system and locomotive appendages of aquatic organisms. Some animals that live in water may also be entrapped or entangled and chocked by plastics,” Opeolu warned.

Other chemicals may also adhere to plastics causing ecological disruption. “Our previous studies have indicated the presence of some of these endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) such as phenols, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, perfluorinated compounds and pharmaceuticals in water and wastewater systems, she remarked.

Opeolu added that the presence of plastics in water may therefore aggravate the human and ecological effects of the EDC. She said some human health risks concerning plastics include eye and respiratory tract irritation, acute skin rashes, birth defects, indigestion, liver dysfunction.

“They may also release estrogenic compounds and are potential carcinogens.  Plastics may [also] cause changes in insulin resistance, reproductive system and brain function.”

She is also investigating the ecological and human health implications of microplastics in two freshwater systems - the Diep and Plankenburg Rivers. The project is being funded by the Water Research Commission. Furthermore, Opeolu recently obtained another grant from the National Research Foundation to investigate the influence of microplastics in wastewater systems. The investigation will focus on ecotoxicological studies and human health risk assessment of microplastics in Cape Town water systems.

Written by Aphiwe Boyce