Warning on plastic’s toxic threat

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Plastic waste in the oceans poses a potentially devastating long-term toxic threat to the food chain, according to marine scientists.

Studies suggest billions of microscopic plastic fragments drifting underwater are concentrating pollutants like DDT.

Most attention has focused on dangers that visible items of plastic waste pose to seabirds and other wildlife.

But researchers are warning that the risk of hidden contamination could be more serious.

Dr Richard Thompson of the University of Plymouth has investigated how plastic degrades in the water and how tiny marine organisms, such as barnacles and sand-hoppers, respond.

He told the BBC: “We know that plastics in the marine environment will accumulate and concentrate toxic chemicals from the surrounding seawater and you can get concentrations several thousand times greater than in the surrounding water on the surface of the plastic.

“Now there’s the potential for those chemicals to be released to those marine organisms if they then eat the plastic.”

‘Magnets for poison’

Once inside an organism, the risk is that the toxins may then be transferred into the organism itself.

“There are different conditions in the gut environment compared to surrounding sea water and so the conditions that cause those chemicals to accumulate on the surface of the plastic may well be reversed – leading to a release of those chemicals when the plastic is eaten.”

According to Dr Thompson, the plastic particles “act as magnets for poisons in the ocean”.

In an experiment involving plastic carrier bags immersed off a jetty in Plymouth harbour, he is assessing the time taken for them to fragment.

In related projects, he and colleagues have also added plastic powder to aquarium sediment to establish how much is ingested by marine life. Research on stretches of shoreline has shown that, at the microscopic level, plastic pollution is far worse than feared.

In a typical sample of sand, one-quarter of the total weight may be composed of plastic particles.

Studies have found that plastic traces have been identified on all seven continents.

Here on Midway, Matt Brown of the US Fish and Wildlife Service echoes the warnings of a long-term threat from plastic waste.

“The thing that’s most worrisome about the plastic is its tenaciousness, its durability. It’s not going to go away in my lifetime or my children’s lifetimes.

“The plastic washing up on the beach today