Don't throw those contact lenses down the drain

IMAGE Contact lenses recovered from treated sewage sludge could harm the environment.  view more  Credit Charles Rolsky

This new study suggests that in the U.S. at least, around 14 billion lenses are thrown away, amounting to around 200,000kg (441,000lb) of plastic waste every year.

"These are medical devices - you would not expect them to be super-biodegradable", the Director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University, Rolf Halden, told the Times.

Around 45m people wear contacts in the USA, while rates in other countries vary, with between 5 and 15% of the population in Europe using them.

About 45 million people in the US alone use contact lenses, according to a survey conducted by the researchers, and between 15 percent and 20 percent of those users said they flush their used lenses down the toilet or 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 USA dirt annually.

Research from the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University just found that millions of contact lenses could be landing in US water supplies every year.

The lenses are consequently spread on farmland as sewage sludge, increasing plastic pollution in the environment.

They examined the fate of 13 different contact-lens brands made from nine different types of plastic polymers.

Discarded contact lenses are contributing to the rising microplastic pollution in the world's water bodies and could eventually find their way to the human food supply, scientists including one of Indian origin have found.

More news: United Kingdom woman rescued after falling from cruise ship in Croatia

Analyzing what happens to contact lenses and lens fragments once emitted by wastewater-treatment plants has been a challenge for researchers. "We'd love to have a dialogue [with manufacturers] and establish a solid protocol for consumers to dispose of or even recycle their contact lenses", Rolsky says.

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.

The researchers are presenting their results today at the 256th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

To make matters worse, because contact lenses are typically denser than water, they can sink into aquatic zones and be eaten by marine life thriving down there, which can potentially poison them. These animals are part of a long food chain. They found that 19 percent of contact lens wearers flushed them down the drain when they didn't need them anymore.

That is because lenses do not break down completely in sewer systems.

Contact lenses frequently contain acrylic, silicones and fluoropolymers.

The researchers broke the study into three core parts. Halden mentions, "Ultimately, we hope that manufacturers will conduct more research on how the lenses impact aquatic life and how fast the lenses degrade in a marine environment".

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