environment: microscopic plastic contaminating oceans

Plastic trash washing up on the remotest islands and accumulating on sea floors is, unfortunately, nothing new, but British researchers have found that even microscopic plastic fibers and fragments are contaminating ocean waters and sediments. In the May 7 Science, Richard Thompson of the UK’s University of Plymouth and colleagues report sampling sediments collected from beaches and estuaries in the northeast Atlantic Ocean. The researchers identified microscopic fragments of nylon, polyester, acrylic, and other types of plastic, which they believe come from the breakdown of larger items, such as clothing, packaging, and rope. Though the researchers acknowledge that more work is needed to establish the actual environmental impact of this debris, they also note that marine organisms, such as barnacles and lugworms, are able to ingest the microscopic plastic fragments, with unknown consequences to the animals or food chains. Thompson and colleagues also have found a significant increase in the presence of plastic fragments compared to samples taken 40 years ago. “Given the rapid increase in plastic production, the longevity of plastic, and the disposable nature of plastic items,” they wrote, “this contamination is likely to increase.”

This news brief appeared in the Discoveries column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 5/11/2004.
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