"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.
The American Chemical Society research presented Sunday in Boston found 20 percent of 400 contact lens users flush old contact lenses down the toilet or in the sink. And because wastewater industry reports suggest about 55 percent of that waste is dumped into soils, the researchers estimate that 11,000 to 12,650 kilograms (about 24,000 to 28,000 pounds) of contaminant-harboring contact lens fragments end up in US dirt annually.
Researchers in the U.S. have been investigating the final journeys taken by disposable contact lenses. Alternatively, Bausch & Lomb offers a recycling program for any brand of contact lenses and packaging.
And there were small changes in the bonds of the plastic polymers after exposure to the microbes.
And those lenses later end up contributing to pollution in oceans, lakes and rivers.
Analyzing what happens to these lenses is a challenge for several reasons.
Earlier research on the individual waste from an average person's disposable contact lenses in the United Kingdom looked more broadly at the environmental footprint of contacts and compared it to waste from soda cans, suggesting that the lens-related waste is relatively small, per person-roughly equivalent to the disposal of 15 cans of Coca Cola per year.
"From past studies, we know that microplastics are able to absorb contaminants at a much higher level than what's found in the surrounding environment", Charlie Rolsky, a postdoctoral student involved in the study, told Time.
As they are denser than water they sink and endanger aquatic life, especially bottom feeders that may ingest them, explained Dr Halden. Further, the plastics used in contact lenses are different from other plastic waste, such as polypropylene, which can be found in everything from vehicle batteries to textiles.
Wastewater treatment facilities in the US simply don't do a good enough job of filtering out the tons of contact lenses that are disposed of through the sewer system, according to new research presented Sunday at the American Chemical Society's meeting in Boston.
The researchers also tested how lenses fared when treated with microorganisms that are used at wastewater treatment facilities to break down biological waste. These animals are part of a long food chain. Second, the unusual plastics used in contact lenses - a combination of poly (methylmethacrylate), silicones and fluoropolymers to create a soft material that allows oxygen to pass through the lens to the eye - are not routinely screened for environmental monitoring studies.
Dr Halden added: 'Ultimately, we hope manufacturers will conduct more research on how the lenses impact aquatic life and how fast the lenses degrade in a marine environment'.
The researchers broke the study into three core parts.
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