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A contact lens on a finger in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

Billions of contact lenses get flushed down the drain every year in the U.S., and researchers from Arizona State University have discovered it takes more than a week for the lenses to even begin to disintegrate, according to research detailed in Scientific American.

Why it matters: Given that most lenses would not spend much longer than a week in a waste facility, the researchers estimate that as much as 50,000 pounds of lenses end up in sewage and up to about 28,000 pounds of that ends up in the dirt, where it could possibly carry contaminants.

The big picture: Contact lenses are still a relatively small problem, especially when looking at the eight million metric tons of plastic pollution that ends up in the oceans every year, according to SciAm. However, experts are increasingly focused on microplastics as a particularly ubiquitous and harmful part of the global plastics pollution problem.

Be smart: The complicating factor comes with contact lenses' absorption capabilities.

"I would be concerned that there would be more of an impact with these microplastics than with the other materials," Sherri Mason, a professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia, told SciAm, "because of their ability to absorb various toxins in the environment, like pesticides and herbicides, and really hyper-concentrate these chemicals and move them into the food chain and up the food chain."

Behind the research: The research was presented at the American Chemical Society’s annual meeting in Boston.

  • Charles Rolsky, the study’s lead author, and other researchers calculated the number of lenses that end up in the sewage system based on the estimated 45 million Americans who wear contacts and the number of lenses sold every year by contact manufacturers.
  • They then tested how long it took for the lenses to begin to disintegrate once placed in wastewater treatment tanks.
  • They also conducted a survey to see the most common ways contact-wearers discard their lenses.

Yes, but...: The research discussed in SciAm has not been published in a peer reviewed journal, and the data it uses comes from U.S. users only. This means that it's possible the contribution of contact lenses to the world's microplastics pollution is significantly larger than suggested by this work alone.

In the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast expanse of plastics trapped by ocean currents In the Central Pacific Ocean, microplastics comprise a majority of the plastics pollution, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature.

  • Microplastics account for just 8% of the total mass in the GPGP but 94% of the pieces, the study found.

Go deeper: Plastic straws play only minor role in global plastics pollution

Go deeper

Updated 30 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Health: Most vulnerable Americans aren't getting enough vaccine information — Fauci says Trump administration's lack of facts on COVID "very likely" cost lives.
  2. Education: Schools face an uphill battle to reopen during the pandemic.
  3. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  4. World: Hong Kong puts tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge — Pfizer to supply 40 million vaccine doses to lower-income countries — Brazil begins distributing AstraZeneca vaccine.
  5. Sports: 2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance.
  6. 🎧 Podcast: Carbon Health's CEO on unsticking the vaccine bottleneck.

DOJ: Capitol rioter threatened to "assassinate" Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Supporters of former President Trump storm the U.S. Captiol on Jan. 6. Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A Texas man who has been charged with storming the U.S. Capitol in the deadly Jan. 6 siege posted death threats against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the Department of Justice said.

The big picture: Garret Miller faces five charges in connection to the riot by supporters of former President Trump, including violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds and making threats. According to court documents, Miller posted violent threats online the day of the siege, including tweeting “Assassinate AOC.”

Schumer calls for IG probe into alleged plan by Trump, DOJ lawyer to oust acting AG

Jeffrey Clark speaks next to Deputy US Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen at a news conference in October. Photo: Yuri Gripas/AFP via Getty Images.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Saturday called for the Justice Department inspector general to investigate an alleged plan by former President Trump and a DOJ lawyer to remove the acting attorney general and replace him with someone more willing to investigate unfounded claims of election fraud.

Driving the news: The New York Times first reported Friday that the lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, allegedly devised "ways to cast doubt on the election results and to bolster Mr. Trump’s continuing legal battles and the pressure on Georgia politicians. Because Mr. [Jeffrey] Rosen had refused the president’s entreaties to carry out those plans, Mr. Trump was about to decide whether to fire Mr. Rosen and replace him with Mr. Clark."