Whether or not they mean to, marine animals are consuming alarming amounts of plastic as they swim through the water.
Scientists recently studied the corpses of 50 marine animals, comprising 10 species, that washed up on British coastlines and found that each animal contained an average of 5.5 microplastic particles in their guts, according to a new report published in the journal Scientific Reports.
However, the actual amount of microplastics the animals consumed over time could be much higher, according to the researchers.
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“The low number of microplastics in their gut at any one time doesn’t necessarily correlate to the chemical burden within their body because the exposure is chronic and cumulative,” lead author Sarah Nelms told the Guardian. “It’s also not yet understood how synthetic particles physically interact with the gut wall as they pass through.”
Many microplastics contain hazardous chemicals that leach into an animal’s body after consumption, and scientists believe that microplastics are magnets for bacteria and other pathogens, which they can also pass on.
As a result, ongoing exposure to microplastics could be causing severe health complications.
Plastics in general can pose deadly risks to marine life. One report found that a turtle’s chance of death rises by 20% after a single piece of plastic is consumed. Other reports have shown that whales starve to death when their guts fill with plastic. Even animals as small as plankton are affected by tiny pieces of plastic.
Marine creatures who feed on smaller animals are doubly exposed to plastic contamination, accidentally consuming it while swimming and by eating smaller creatures that have ingested plastic.
Further research must be done to better understand the health risks posed by plastic consumption, but one thing is clear: plastic waste is only increasing in the world’s oceans.
In fact, there are nearly 500 times more pieces of microplastic in the oceans than there are stars in our galaxy. Each minute, one garbage truck’s worth of plastic is dumped into marine ecosystems. The European Union alone releases six times as much plastic into the oceans as is found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a roiling web of plastic twice the size of Texas.
Microplastics enter the oceans in many ways. Large pieces of plastic disintegrate into smaller and smaller fragments, various consumer goods contain microplastics that wash down drains and wind up in bodies of water, and the wear and tear of everyday objects such as tires on roads and clothes in dryers release vast quantities of microplastics into the atmosphere that make their way into water sources.
“It’s disconcerting that plastic is everywhere — all animals are exposed to it and they are ingesting it in their natural environment,” she said. “The ocean is a soup of microplastics and it’s only going to get worse, so we need to reduce the amount of plastic waste released into our seas now.”