Microplastics (MPs) pollution in the aquatic environment raises considerable concerns. Freshwater system is generally considered as an important source for MPs transformation into the marine environment, however, only limited data on the MPs pollution in global freshwater systems is available at this time. In this study, we explored the abundance, characteristics and distribution of microplastics in the Scheldt River. The investigation results indicated that the abundance of microplastics in sediments (15–413 items/kg dry weight (DW)) was much higher than that in surface water (0–113 items/m3), and small size MPs (less than 500 μm) frequently appeared in sediments. Industrial activities were regarded as the major cause of MP discharging. Risk assessment models with using data of the concentration of MPs, polymer types and toxicity of MPs exposure were developed to assess the risk of MPs pollution in both surface water and sediment of the Westerscheldt estuary. Risk assessment results revealed that MPs exposure have potentially adverse effects on the aquatic ecosystem and human health. MPs tend to be transported from “Hotspots”, such as urban or industries area, to remote areas. The risk assessment of MPs serves as a baseline for better understanding the distribution and characteristics of MPs and highlights the need of intensively monitoring to limit MPs release by intensively monitoring. This research provides a perspective on the risk of MPs that could be used in future studies.
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