Dangerous Viruses Can Survive in Fresh Water by Clinging to Plastic Waste, Study Finds

Microplastics found in the Corsica River in Maryland.

Microplastics found in the Corsica River in Maryland. Chesapeake Bay Program via Flickr

Viruses are able to survive in fresh water by clinging to microscopic pieces of plastic, posing a potential threat to public health, according to a new study.

Researchers found that rotavirus, which causes diarrhea, can remain infectious for up to three days when bound to microplastics. The findings suggest that gastrointestinal viruses found in sewage could enter waterways by attaching to tiny bits of plastic waste.

“Even if a wastewater treatment plant is doing everything it can to clean sewage waste, the water discharged still has microplastics in it, which are then transported down the river, into the estuary, and end up on the beach,” said Richard Quilliam, a professor of environment and health at Stirling University in Scotland and coauthor of the study. “We weren’t sure how well viruses could survive by ‘hitch-hiking’ on plastic in the environment, but they do survive, and they do remain infectious.”

Researchers tested viruses with a lipid coating, such as the flu virus, and those without, such as norovirus. While those with a lipid coating lost their protective layer in fresh water and died shortly thereafter, those without were able to survive. The study, published in the journal Environmental Pollution, is part of a larger, U.K.-funded project investigating how plastics transport bacteria and viruses.

“Microplastics are so small that they could potentially be ingested by someone swimming, and sometimes they wash up on the beach as lentil-sized, brightly colored pellets called nurdles that children might pick up and put in their mouths,” Quilliam said. “It doesn’t take many virus particles to make you sick.”

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