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

Case growth outpacing testing in coronavirus hotspots

Data: The COVID Tracking Project. Note: Vermont and Hawaii were not included because they have fewer than 20 cases per day. Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The United States' alarming rise in coronavirus cases isn't due to increased testing — particularly not where cases have grown fastest over the last month.

Why it matters: The U.S. doesn't yet know what it looks like when a pandemic rages on relatively unchecked after the health system has become overwhelmed. It may be about to find out.

The impending retail apocalypse

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Because of the coronavirus and people's buying habits moving online, retail stores are closing everywhere — often for good.

Why it matters: Malls are going belly up. Familiar names like J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus and J. Crew have filed for bankruptcy. Increasingly, Americans' shopping choices will boil down to a handful of internet Everything Stores and survival-of-the-fittest national chains.

Biden campaign using Instagram to mobilize celebrity supporters

Collins appears on the Build live interview series in November 2019. Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

The Biden campaign is launching a new initiative today that will draft Hollywood celebrities for Instagram Live chats with campaign officials and other Biden supporters.

Why it matters: The campaign, called #TeamJoeTalks, is an attempt to open up a new front on social media, drawing on celebrities’ Instagram followers to help find and motivate voters while large parts of the country remain locked down.