Microplastics in freshwater systems: A review on occurrence, environmental effects, and methods for microplastics detection

Jingyi Li, Huihui Liu, J. Paul Chen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

367 Scopus citations


The continuous increase in synthetic plastic production and poor management in plastic waste have led to a tremendous increase in the dumping into our aqueous environment. Consequently, microplastics commonly defined as sizes less than 5 mm are produced and stay in both seawater and freshwater environment. The presence of microplastics as a new type of emerging contaminant has become a great issue of concerns from public and government authorities. The sources of microplastics to freshwater systems are many with the largest portion from wastewater treatment plants. The abundance of microplastics varies with the location, from above 1 million pieces per cubic meter to less than 1 piece in 100 cubic meters. Microplastics can cause several harmful physical effects on humans and living organisms through such mechanisms as entanglement and ingestion. The microplastics can act as carriers of various toxins such as additives from industrial production processes and persistent contaminants by the sorption in waters. Those toxins may cause great health problems to humans. A few studies on the fishes demonstrated that the microplastics and the associated toxins are bio-accumulated and cause such problems as intestinal damage and change in metabolic profiles. In studies of microplastics, fresh water is first sampled by the nets with typical mesh size of 330 μm for collection of microplastics. After the volume reducing process, the samples will then go through the purification process including density separation by such inorganic salts as sodium chloride and digestion process by oxidizing agents or enzymes. The sequence of these two processes (namely purification and digestion) is dependent on the sample type. The purified samples can be studied by several analytical methods. The commonly used methods for the qualification studies are FTIR spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy, pyrolysis-GC/MS, and liquid chromatography. A tagging method can be used in the quantification study. Our literature study finds that there is still no universal accepted quantification and qualification tools of microplastics in fresh waters. More work is anticipated so as to obtain accurate information on microplastics in freshwater, which can then be used for the better assessment of the environmental risk.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)362-374
Number of pages13
JournalWater Research
StatePublished - 15 Jun 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Analytical methods
  • Freshwaters
  • Microplastics
  • Occurrence

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