Science

Toxic chemicals from microplastic pollution infects seabirds


Toxic chemicals in microplastic pollution swallowed by seabirds can poison their livers and threaten their survival, study reveals

  • Scientists fed pellets infused with plastic additives to various seabird species 
  • Found the chemicals were stored in the liver and fatty tissue of the animals  
  • Plastic additive levels were found up to 1,200 times higher than normal  
  • Scientists have called these chemicals a ‘pervasive and growing threat’ 

Toxic chemicals from microplastic pollution gathers in the bodies of seabirds and is putting their survival at risk, a study has found. 

Tests in the wild and in a lab revealed plastic additives accumulate in the birds’ livers and fatty tissues at extreme levels – up to 1,200 times the normal level. 

Chemicals added to plastics include flame retardants and UV stabilisers, which are designed to make them more resilient and durable.  

However, tpresence of these chemicals in seabirds has been slammed by scientists, who describe plastic pollution as a ‘pervasive and growing threat’.

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Chemicals added to plastics found in the liver and tissue of the birds flame retardants and UV stabilisers. They were infused into plastic pellets and scientists assessed how the chemicals travelled throughout their bodies (pictured). They found levels of the chemicals up to 1,200 times the normal level

Chemicals added to plastics found in the liver and tissue of the birds flame retardants and UV stabilisers. They were infused into plastic pellets and scientists assessed how the chemicals travelled throughout their bodies (pictured). They found levels of the chemicals up to 1,200 times the normal level 

Research published in the journal Current Biology from Hokkaido University in Japan predicts 99 per cent of seabirds will have ingested plastic waste by 2050.

Researchers, led by Dr Shouta Nakayama, write in the study: ‘Marine plastic debris contains both additives compounded during manufacturing and chemicals sorbed from ambient seawater.

‘The many toxic chemicals present and their adverse effects on those organisms that ingest plastics raise concerns about individual health and population-level impacts.’

Birds often get tangled in plastic or mistake it for food and eat it. Pictured, a graphic image of a seagull from 2018 that died after becoming tangled in a carrier bad on a barbed wire fence

Birds often get tangled in plastic or mistake it for food and eat it. Pictured, a graphic image of a seagull from 2018 that died after becoming tangled in a carrier bad on a barbed wire fence

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The researchers fed plastic pellets to chicks of six different types of seabirds – including two species of albatross.

Between 1950 and 2010, sea bird populations have declined by 70 per cent. 

Currently, nearly half of the world’s species are experiencing population declines, and 2 per cent are classified as globally threatened, the researchers say. 

Seabirds, as well as many marine mammals, reptiles and fish, mistake litter in the waterways for food. 

After unwillingly eating the plastic, it wreaks havoc in their bodies. 

Macropollution – large chunks of plastic – cause blockages and can wrap around internal organs of animals, causing injury, malnutrition and even death. 

But the chemicals inside the plastic litter also alter the innards of the birds, the latest study shows.  

WHAT FURTHER RESEARCH IS NEEDED TO ASSESS THE SPREAD AND IMPACT OF MICROPLASTICS?

The World Health Organisation’s 2019 report ‘Microplastics in Drinking Water’ outlined numerous areas for future research that could shed light on how far spread the problem of microplastic pollution is, how it may impact human health and what can be done to stop these particles from entering our water supplies.

How widespread are microplastics?

The following research would clarify the occurrence of microplastics in drinking-water and freshwater sources:

  • More data are needed on the occurrence of microplastics in drinking-water to assess human exposure from drinking-water adequately. 
  • Studies on occurrence of microplastics must use quality-assured methods to determine numbers, shapes, sizes, and composition of the particles found. They should identify whether the microplastics are coming from the freshwater environment or from the abstraction, treatment, distribution or bottling of drinking-water. Initially, this research should focus on drinking-water thought to be most at risk of particulate contamination. 
  • Drinking-water studies would be usefully supplemented by better data on fresh water that enable the freshwater inputs to be quantified and the major sources identified. This may require the development of reliable methods to track origins and identify sources. 
  • A set of standard methods is needed for sampling and analysing microplastics in drinking-water and fresh water. 
  • There is a significant knowledge gap in the understanding of nanoplastics in the aquatic environment. A first step to address this gap is to develop standard methods for sampling and analysing nanoplastics. 
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What are the health implications of microplastics?

Although water treatment can be effective in removing particles, there is limited data specific to microplastics. To support human health risk assessment and management options, the following data gaps related to water treatment need to be addressed: 

  • More research is needed to understand the fate of microplastics across different wastewater and drinking-water treatment processes (such as clarification processes and oxidation) under different operational circumstances, including optimal and sub-optimal operation and the influence of particle size, shape and chemical composition on removal efficacy. 
  • There is a need to better understand particle composition pre- and post-water treatment, including in distribution systems. The role of microplastic breakdown and abrasion in water treatment systems, as well as the microplastic contribution from the processes themselves should be considered. 
  • More knowledge is needed to understand the presence and removal of nanoplastic particles in water and wastewater treatment processes once standard methods for nanoplastics are available. 
  • There is a need to better understand the relationships between turbidity (and particle counts) and microplastic concentrations throughout the treatment processes. 
  • Research is needed to understand the significance of the potential return of microplastics to the environment from sludge and other treatment waste streams. 

To better understand microplastic-associated biofilms and their significance, the following research could be carried out:

  • Further studies could be conducted on the factors that influence the composition and potential specificity of microplastic-associated biofilms. 
  • Studies could also consider the factors influencing biofilm formation on plastic surfaces, including microplastics, and how these factors vary for different plastic materials, and what organisms more commonly bind to plastic surfaces in freshwater systems. 
  • Research could be carried out to better understand the capacity of microplastics to transport pathogenic bacteria longer distances downstream, the rate of degradation in freshwater systems and the relative abundance and transport capacity of microplastics compared with other particles.
  • Research could consider the risk of horizontal transfer of antimicrobial resistance genes in plastisphere microorganisms compared to other biofilms, such as those found in WWTPs. 
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Can water treatment stop microplastics entering our water supplies?

Although water treatment can be effective in removing particles, there is limited data specific to microplastics. To support human health risk assessment and management options, the following data gaps related to water treatment need to be addressed: 

  • More research is needed to understand the fate of microplastics across different wastewater and drinking-water treatment processes (such as clarification processes and oxidation) under different operational circumstances, including optimal and sub-optimal operation and the influence of particle size, shape and chemical composition on removal efficacy. 
  • There is a need to better understand particle composition pre- and post-water treatment, including in distribution systems. The role of microplastic breakdown and abrasion in water treatment systems, as well as the microplastic contribution from the processes themselves should be considered.
  • More knowledge is needed to understand the presence and removal of nanoplastic particles in water and wastewater treatment processes once standard methods for nanoplastics are available. 
  • There is a need to better understand the relationships between turbidity (and particle counts) and microplastic concentrations throughout the treatment processes. 
  • Research is needed to understand the significance of the potential return of microplastics to the environment from sludge and other treatment waste streams.





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