Plastic particles smaller than 5 mm, so called microplastics have the capability to accumulate in rivers, lakes and the marine environment and therefore have begun to be considered in eco-toxicology and human health risk assessment. Environmental microplastic contaminants may originate from consumer products like body wash, tooth pastes and cosmetic products, but also from degradation of plastic waste; they represent a potential but unpredictable threat to aquatic organisms and possibly also to humans. We investigated exemplarily for polyethylene (PE), the most abundant constituent of microplastic particles in the environment, whether such fragments could be produced from larger pellets (2 mm × 6 mm). So far only few analytical methods exist to identify microplastic particles smaller than 10 μm, especially no imaging mass spectrometry technique. We used at first time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry (ToF-SIMS) for analysis and imaging of small PE-microplastic particles directly in the model system Ottawa sand during exposure to sea surf simulation. As a prerequisite, a method for identification of PE was established by identification of characteristic ions for PE out of an analysis of grinded polymer samples. The method was applied onto Ottawa sand in order to investigate the influence of simulated environmental conditions on particle transformation. A severe degradation of the primary PE pellet surface, associated with the transformation of larger particles into smaller ones already after 14 days of sea surf simulation, was observed. Within the subsequent period of 14 days to 1 month of exposure the number of detected smallest-sized particles increased significantly (50%) while the second smallest fraction increased even further to 350%. Results were verified using artificially degraded PE pellets and Ottawa sand.
H. Jungnickel, R. Pund, J. Tentschert and al., Science of The Total Environment, Volumes 563–564, Pages 261–266, 1 September 2016