Researchers have discovered that chemicals from plastic can accumulate in the bodies of seabirds.
For a Hokkaido University study published recently in Current Biology, scientists fed plastic pellets to chicks to examine the effects of plastic pollution on wildlife. The pellets resulted in the build-up of plastic chemicals in the birds’ livers and fatty tissues.
The amount of chemical additives that accumulated in the seabirds were 120,000 times higher than the amount they would normally consume through their diets. The research team also monitored other wild seabird species that ingested large quantities of plastic and found the same result as part of the study.
“These findings provide direct evidence of seabird exposure to plastic additives and emphasize the role of marine debris ingestion as a source of chemical pollution,” the study said.
As seabirds continue to decline, plastic pollution and chemical additives present a growing threat to their existence. Almost half of all seabird species have steadily declining populations, and 1 in 3 species have been classified as globally threatened.
It is not uncommon for birds to mistake plastic for food, and with widespread plastic debris entering the world’s oceans, the number of birds consuming plastic is only increasing.
Around 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year, according to a 2015 report published in Science magazine.
Plastic ingestion can cause serious injury and even death, and exposes birds and other animals to potentially dangerous chemicals. Seabirds standout as vulnerable victims of plastic consumption in particular because of their higher than average rates of ingestion.
Scientists from CSIRO and Imperial College London have estimated that plastic ingestion will affect 99% of all seabirds by 2050.
“The many toxic chemicals present and their adverse effects on those organisms that ingest plastics raise concerns about individual health and population-level impacts,” the study said.
While researchers have found that chemical additives from plastic build up in seabirds, the health impacts of this chemical accumulation have still yet to be determined.
“This study demonstrates that plastics do lead to raised levels of contaminants in seabird chicks,” Dr. Samantha Patrick from the University of Liverpool, who was not involved in the study, told the BBC. "This is an important step forward in our understanding of how plastics affect marine species."