Seriously, stop flushing your single-use contact lenses down the toilet

Jermaine Castillo
August 21, 2018

His team had already been working on plastic pollution research, and it was a startling wake-up call when they couldn't find studies on what happens to contact lenses after use. "This leads to smaller plastic particles which would ultimately lead to the formation of microplastics", Kelkar says.

Lenses that are washed down the drain typically are conveyed to wastewater-treatment plants. First, contact lenses are transparent, which makes them hard to observe in the complicated milieu of a wastewater-treatment plant. This $2.7 billion US market has made contact lenses more comfortable and disposable.

There are filters created to keep larger objects from ending up in wastewater treatment plants, but contact lenses are small and flexible, so they can get through those filters pretty easily. They end up in wastewater treatment plants - and that's where things get a little dicey.

"This is a pretty large number, considering roughly 45 million people in the USA alone wear contact lenses", said Charles Rolsky, a PhD student who is working with Halden and a third member of the ASU team, Varun Kelkar. Even so, he and his team still urge contact lens wearers to think about the way they throw out their lenses. They also learned that the microbes treatment plants count on to reduce the amount of organic matter did not change the molecular makeup of the polymers found in many contact lenses. Those cumulative numbers helped them arrive at their estimate of more than 2.5 billion lenses residing within our sewage in a given year.

The research has been presented at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston.

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Big data on wastewater is largely unavailable, and quantifying the mass of microplastics is challenging, says Sherri Mason, a professor of chemistry at the State University of NY at Fredonia. ACS does not conduct research, but publishes and publicizes peer-reviewed scientific studies.

"We know that whatever's in sludge can make its way into runoff from heavy rains, back into surface water and that is a conduit to the oceans; there is the potential of these lenses being taken on quite a journey". Or they could sit in soil, desiccating in the sun.

Filters keep some nonbiological waste out of wastewater treatment plants, said Rolf Halden, director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University, and Charles Rolsky, a graduate student and the study's lead author. "That presents threats to that particular organism and anything that feeds on it" - including humans, further up the food chain. Without realising, they could be contributing to a serious environmental problem.

If filter feeders and small fish ingest the contacts, whether whole or shattered, it could cause a blockage in their bodily functions.

They examined the fate of 13 different contact-lens brands made from nine different types of plastic polymers. "And because that's not providing nutrients, it is possible for organisms like that to starve", Rolsky says.

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Throwing Away Your Contact Lenses?

And if you've ever flushed your used lenses, and are reading this?

Scientists are hoping your answer isn't, flush them down the toilet or toss them into the sink. Alternatively, Bausch & Lomb offers a recycling program for any brand of contact lenses and packaging.

Tonnes of ecologically damaging "microplastics" are being dumped into the world's oceans each year by people who flush disposable contact lenses down the sink or toilet, research indicates.

Contact lens companies often provide no package instructions about where to dispose of lenses, the ASU researchers note. However, Rolsky says wearers should be more mindful about how they dispose them once they're not needed anymore. "That might have a drastic effect all by itself".

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