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Plastic pollution could be working its way up the food chain, scientists warn

By Raffaella Ciccarelli | 9News | 

“We found plastic on every island we went to. We also did microplastic trawling and found plastic in the ocean too. The plastic is throughout the entire ocean column – the sea surface, the seafloor,” marine biologist Laura Wells told nine.com.au. 

“Plastics is full of different chemicals that are harmful to human health, and once the plastic is in the ocean it acts like a sponge. It soaks up all of the other chemicals and becomes extra toxic. It is then ingested by fish and other organisms, which we then consume. So essentially, we are eating our own toxic waste.”

A recent study conducted by the Environment Agency Austria has fueled concern these plastic particles are working their way into humans via the food chain.

The pilot study, which was published late last year, found microplastics in human stools for the first time in history. 

Lead researcher, Dr. Philip Schwabl, told nine.com.au: “We performed a pilot trial and found microplastics present in human stools, which is an indicator that we involuntarily eat or ingest it. This is the first time gastrointestinal microplastics have been found in humans.”

To date, scientists have found microplastics in 114 aquatic species, including salmon, Bluefin tuna, swordfish, clams, oysters and scallops.

“There is cause for concern because particles of plastic that we are finding in samples have been linked to health problems for both humans and wildlife,” Dr. Mark Browne, an ecologist at the University of New South Wales told nine.com.au.

“We have shown that it can cause inflammation and scar tissue, but in terms of humans we don’t know what happens.”

Fishmongers sell prawns by the bucketful on Christmas Day. Fishmongers sell prawns by the bucketful on Christmas Day. (AAP)

 

There is a concern that these microplastics could cause serious illnesses like cancer, Dr. Browne said. 

“With asbestos, we know particles can cause inflammation, scar tissue; and the link from scar tissue to cancer has been established. What happens if there is the same link to more plastic particles? If those particles can cause inflammation and scar tissue,  could they follow the same pathway as asbestos?”

A spokesperson for Clean-Up Australia told nine.com.au: “Plastics also leach toxins in seawater – so it’s not just the material, it’s also the elements of that material that are dangerous. This is real, immediate and significant. We are not only poisoning our environment, but we are also poisoning ourselves. Australians should be concerned”

Dr. Schwabl agrees.

“Some plastics are produced with additives which may leach out, so there are additional chemicals which could cause harm.”

“A very prominent example is Bisphenol A, abbreviated BPA, which at least in Europe is now banned for babies’ bottles. This BPA which came into skin contact, the tongue and oral cavity, could have reached out, and had toxic and hormonal effects in the babies.”

Barnacles hitch a ride on a plastic bottle in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Barnacles hitch a ride on a plastic bottle in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Justin Hofman)

Dr. Schwabl is quick to point out that there are limitations to the study, namely the small sample size.

“We looked at eight people and found plastics in 100 percent of our sample size. It is difficult to estimate how these numbers translate to the wider population though.”

Another issue, is that while the microplastics were found in human stools, we don’t know where they are coming from, and how they are entering the body. 

“There is a widespread concern that the source of microplastics is from ocean pollution. The plastic accrues and accumulates in the sea so that is a hot spot. But there are several possibilities,” Dr. Schwabl said.

“There are also airborne particles. Recently studies have shown that salt and bottled water contain microplastics. It’s difficult to say whether microplastics entered the body via the food chain. In the end, it is not at all clear, where they come from” 

Sunlight, wind, waves and heat break plastic down into tiny fragments called microplastics.

Sunlight, wind, waves and heat break plastic down into tiny fragments called microplastics.

Dr. Browne takes a similar stance.

“Plastic particles are certainly getting into us, where they are getting into us from is unclear. Organisms of different sizes can break plastics down into smaller sizes, microorganisms all the way up to larger animals, so it is feasible that plastic can transfer from the environment into organisms and up the food chain. Although it is very likely, we don’t have very good studies looking at that aspect.”

“Researchers are not actually thinking about the knowledge gaps. More studies that show that we find plastic in poo, or on shorelines in a remote place, aren’t really going to help us. We will need to start drilling down to the details.

“There are various health problems for humans and wildlife and we need to start taking this seriously.”

This dead whale washed ashore on Southeast Sulawesi in November. It had over 1,000 assorted pieces of plastic in its stomach including, plastic cups, bottles, bags, and thongs.

This dead whale washed ashore on Wakatobi, Southeast Sulawesi in November. It had over 1,000 assorted pieces of plastic in its stomach including, plastic cups, bottles, bags, and thongs. (AP/AAP)

 

Source: https://www.9news.com.au/2019/02/01/13/27/microplastics-plastic-pollution-in-food-chain-scientist-warning, 9 Feb 2019