“Take that out of your mouth.”

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Such is the cry of parents whose young children have an appetite for learning that is sometimes too literal. Over the last year or two we have seen an increase of stories about the effects of toxic plastics on human health, from fetal to adult. The scientist Jacques Monod once commented of genetics, “What’s true for e-coli is true for an elephant.” That goes for the effects of plastics, too.

Approximately no one should be surprised that the oceans absorb much of our chemical trash. Still, it was a useful and insightful exercise for Charles James Moore, of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, to quantify just how much plastic the waters have absorbed – and by extension, the life within them. Moore finds that for two decades we have been flushing plastics out to sea faster than industry produces them for their infinite commercial use.

Bisphenol-A, singled out recently in several studies for harm to children, is just one chemical that seeps into marine ecosystems. Styrene, polycarbonates, UV stabilizers, non-stick coatings all break-down over time, but for the most part maintain their molecular integrity. When a foam coffee cup dematerializes to the four corners of the Earth, it doesn’t disappear, but soaks up other toxins before entering the food chain. Scientists have identified 267 species worldwide that ingest plastic debris, including albatross, fulmars, shearwaters, and petrels, which confuse plastic for food; 44 percent of seabird species; and sea turtles that munch on plastic bags and fishing line.

Moore identifies eight issues within the overall problem:

  • Macroscopic debris – diapers, syringes, etc – washes up on beaches, unsightly and potentially harmful.
  • Bags, lines, and other waste snares marine biota, “and kills through drowning, strangulation, dragging, and reduction of feeding efficiency.”
  • Some plastic debris looks like and weighs as much as food, but is only a toxic substitute.
  • Hydrocarbon-based synthetic compounds tend not to biodegrade. They can also provide a home to barnacles, worms, and other undesirables, and float them across the sea, where they become invasive species.
  • Many unprocessed plastics are shipped from suppliers to factories in the form of tiny resin pellets. At sea, these pellets and other plastic debris emit and absorb endocrine disrupters and other pollutants.
  • Debris falls through the water column and disrupts both benthic ecosystems and deep-sea deposition of CO2.
  • Coastal species see their nursery habitats poisoned by anthropogenic litter.
  • Plastic waste clogs ship intake ports and wraps propellers, costing time and money.

SOURCE: Moore, Charles James. “Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing, long-term threat.” Environmental Research 108 (2008): 131-139.

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