Our oceans are being polluted with plastics, and every year thousands of tons of tiny plastic particles are produced worldwide that make their way up the food chain and into animal tissues — like yours and mine. These toxic pollutants, called microplastics, are the result of the erosion of larger plastic products.
The problem is that these plastics never completely biodegrade. They break down into smaller pieces with sunlight, but they never go away completely. Ocean currents carry them to vortexes. One such site off the California coast is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It's the largest ocean garbage site in the world — and it's twice the size of Texas.
Most people say that these micrometer-sized pieces of plastic are safe when ingested. I disagree, and now new research is showing why you should too. It turns out, microplastics act like magnets, attaching themselves to environmental pollutants and growing larger every day. These pollutants suppress immunity and increase susceptibility to oxidative stress.
Global production of plastic exceeds 280 metric tons every year. And on top of that, microplastics can even get into the water supply from our washing machines. Tiny pieces of polyester and acrylic are turning up as debris on shorelines around the world. Not surprising, since more than 1,900 fibers can rinse off just one garment during a wash cycle. Microplastics are clearly a big issue. So researchers at UC Santa Barbara's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis conducted a study, published in Current Biology, to determine just how harmful they are to animals that ingest them.
During the study, the team exposed lugworms to sand with 5% percent microplastic containing common chemical pollutants and additives. They found that the pollutants and additives from the microplastic were in the worms' tissues at concentrations high enough to negatively affect key functions. The team conducted their experiments on lugworms because they comprise up to 32% of the mass of shore-dwelling organisms in the United States and Europe. Birds and fish both consume them, so they have implications for the rest of the food chain. Governments often use lugworms in order to determine whether chemicals used in marine habitats are safe.
While lugworms may be able to tell governments which chemicals aren't safe, they were also telling the researchers that microplastics aren't safe either. In fact, the microplastic pollutants and additives accumulated in the lugworms' guts at concentrations ranging from 326% to 3,770% higher than those in experimental sediments. And these pollutants had highly detrimental effects. One pollutant suppressed immune function by over 60%. Another caused a 55% increase in mortality. Microplastic exposure also upped vulnerability to oxidative stress by over 30%.
Some of these chemical pollutants found in microplastics are considered "priority pollutants," ones that governments believe are the worst, based on both how persistently bioaccumulative they are and their toxicity. But they weren't sure whether microplastics actually caused these chemicals to transfer to living organisms. This study is clearly demonstrating that they do.
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Your voice of reason in Women's Health,
Dr. Janet Zand
"Microplastic Transfers Chemicals, Impacting Health: Plastic Ingestion Delivers Pollutants and Additives Into Animal Tissue," Science News, Dec. 2, 2013.