ONE of Scotland's most protected lochs is at the centre of an environmental protection row after being found to contain microplastics that can harm marine life.

New research by Bangor University and Friends of the Earth has found microplastic pollution in some of Britain’s most iconic and remote rivers and lakes, including Loch Lomond.

The study, believed to be the first of its kind, looked at ten sites - including waterways in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, lakes in the Lake District, a wetland and Welsh reservoir - and found microplastics in all of them.

It comes after previous research last year has found that some of Scotland's coastal waters have become microplastic hotspots, having become saturated with tiny plastic particles that threaten seabirds and other sealife.

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The Greenpeace study found that two out of three samples of water extracted from Scotland's beaches contained traces of plastic prompting calls for the government to go further than their cotton bud ban.

Friends of the Earth and Dr Christian Dunn, of Bangor University, who led the research, say the new findings suggest that microplastics should now be considered as an emergent contaminant - and that routine monitoring of all UK waters must now take place.

READ MORE: Video: Scotland becomes a pollution hotspot for 'killer' cotton buds

The preliminary findings found 2.4 pieces of plastic per litre of water in Loch Lomond, an important environmental site, while in the river Tame in Greater Manchester there were over 1000.

Last year, a report by Eunomia for Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland estimated that key sources of pollution include car tyres clothing, plastic pellets used to make plastic items and paints on buildings and road markings.

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Microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size. Some are manufactured, such as the microbeads added to health and beauty products, while others are the result of larger plastics gradually breaking down.

These plastics are pervasive in marine environments, and they are known to harbour toxic substances such as heavy metals and phthalates..

Since many animals are known to eat microplastics, scientists are concerned about the toxic substances contained within them, as well as their capacity to accumulate within the animals and stop them from absorbing nutrients correctly.

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Researchers from the University of Ghent in Belgium found two years ago that seafood eaters are absorbing the plastic into their bloodstream with unknown effects on human health.

Scientists say that 99 per cent of the microplastics pass through the human body - but the rest are taken up by body tissues.

Chemicals found in sea samples in Greenpeace's study included those used as additives in plastics like phthalate esters, heavy metals and flame retardants – some of which have been classified as "toxic to reproduction" or are suspected to have hormone disrupting properties.

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In January, last year, the Scottish Government announced the sale and manufacture of plastic-stemmed cotton buds was to be banned, following concerns about the number being washed up on beaches after being flushed down toilets.

The researchers in the new study, used fluorescence lighting system, to identify and count microplastic pollutants (less than 5 mm in size) - such as plastic fragments, fibres and film - per litre of water.

READ MORE: Video: New concern over plastic pollution in Scottish coastal waters after Greenpeace research

The researchers say further work is now essential to fully investigate any health risks from microplastics – to humans and ecosystems – so that “safe” levels can be ascertained, and removal and mitigation processes can be put in place.

Dr Christian Dunn, of Bangor University, said: “It was more than a little startling to discover microplastics were present in even the most remote sites we tested, and quite depressing they were there in some of our country’s most iconic locations.

“These initial findings, from our team at Bangor University with Friends of the Earth, show that we have to start taking the issue of plastic in our inland waters seriously.

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“Plastic is polluting our rivers, lakes and wetlands in a similar way as pollutants such as so-called ‘emerging contaminants’ like pharmaceutical waste, personal care products and pesticides.

“As with all emerging contaminants we don’t yet fully know the dangers they present to wildlife and ecosystems, or even human health, and to what levels they occur in all our water systems.

“But it’s now clear that microplastics should be considered a serious emerging contaminant and there needs to be a concerted effort to regularly monitor all our inland waters for them.

“Our method provides a straightforward and low-cost way of doing this so we now need to roll it out and see if our preliminary results are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland's head of campaigns, Mary Church added: “The widespread contamination of our rivers and lochs with microplastic pollution is a major concern, and people will understandably want to know what impact this could have on our health and environment.

"Plastic pollution is all too often simply one end of a long, environmentally damaging journey from resource extraction to ending up as microplastics in our waterways. The plastics crisis is intrinsically linked to the climate crisis, with the vast majority of plastics derived from fossil fuels, including fracked gas.

“Scotland must tackle plastic pollution at source, preventing its creation by getting to grips with industrial plastic pollution from manufacturing sites, and developing a circular economy. The Scottish Government should also continue positive actions so far that help to cut down on our use of unnecessary single-use plastic items such as straws, cotton buds and coffee cups. The forthcoming Deposit Return Scheme will also make a big difference to recycling rates for bottles and cans."

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It is believed Europeans currently consume up to 11,000 pieces of plastic in their food each year. According to unpublished studies, fewer than 60 of these are likely to be absorbed - but they will accumulate in the body over time.

But there have been warnings that the amount of plastic absorbed from our food will increase as plastic pollution in the ocean gets worse.

In 2017, it emerged that 88 shoreline searches across Scotland found that over two out of three were littered with the lentil-sized plastic pellets known as 'nurdles'.

The Firth of Forth saw the highest concentration of the lentil-sized fragments, which measure less than a millimetre across, and are used as a raw material in the manufacturing industry to make new plastic products.

Beach cleans by the Marine Conservation Society have found that the average number of plastic cotton buds found per 100 metres in Scotland has soared from around nine in 2011 and 2012 events to 31 in the 2016 and 2017 campaigns.

The typical number found in the last two years was more than double that found in the previous two years of beach cleans and was higher than the UK average.