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Pt. 2: Microplastics: Threatened Waters, Threatened Food Chain

Keep Lee County Beautiful Tip of the Week

February 7, 2018
Norman Turiano for Keep Lee County Beautiful , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Keep Lee County Beautiful Tip of the Week

Microplastics: Threatened Waters, Threatened Food Chain

Second In a Series

In our first article, we explored what microplastics are, where they come from, and briefly discussed the threats they pose. In this article, we will look at those threats in more detail.

Entering the Food Chain

The fancy scientific term for this would be "Biological Organism Integration", but simply put, microplastics become embedded in animals' tissue through feeding or respiration. Various species, such as deposit-feeding lugworms have been shown to have microplastics embedded in their gastrointestinal tracts. Many crustaceans, like the shore crab, have been found to integrate microplastics into both their gills and digestive tracts.

In case you think that this ingestion only occurs by accident, there is data that suggests that some species may be ingesting plastic particles selectivelyIn other words, they are choosing to ingest them! It has been shown that four species of sea cucumber ingested between up to 20 times more PVC fragments and up to 138 times more nylon line fragments based on plastic to sand grain ratios from each sediment treatment.

Not only do fish and other organisms ingest microplastics either. Corals, which are primary reef-builders, appear under laboratory conditions to ingest microplastics. While the effects of this have not been studied, the adherence to the outside of corals can potentially be harmful because corals cannot handle sediment or any particulate matter on their exterior, and slough it off by secreting mucus. By doing so, they can expend a large amount of energy in the process, increasing their chances of dying off. In addition, many reef fish feed upon the coral, potentially including the mircoplastics to their digestive tracks.

It was found that zooplankton ingest microplastics beads and excrete fecal matter contaminated with them. Along with this, the microplastics stick to the appendages and exoskeleton of the zooplankton. Apparently, zooplankton consume microplastics because they emit similar infochemicals as phytoplankton. The culprit? The types of plastics commonly found in plastic bags, bleach, food storage containers, and bottle caps.

It can take at least 14 days for microplastics to pass through an animal (as compared to a normal digestion periods of 2 days). When microplastic-laden animals are consumed by predators, the microplastics are then incorporated into the bodies of higher-level feeders. For example, scientists have reported accumulation in the stomachs of lantern fish, which are the main prey for commercial fish like tuna and swordfish.

The Danger to Humans

As fish is the primary source of protein for nearly one-fifth of the human population, it is sobering to realize that the microplastics working its way up the food chain can be subsequently consumed by humans at the top of the chain. In a study done by the State University of New York, 18 fish species were sampled and all species showed some level of plastics in their systems. The microplastics, of course, can then enter humans via consumption. It is unknown at this time how much of an impact this has on the health of humans, but research on the issue continues. Nonetheless, the mere thought of incorporating plastic into our bodies is frightening to say the least.

Next, we will look at ways we can reduce the problem in order to reduce the threat.

As always, the best rule to follow is first reduce, secondly reuse, and finally recycle.

This sustainability tip is courtesy of Keep Lee County Beautiful Inc. For more information, visit, email, or call (239) 334-3488.

--By Norman Turiano for Keep Lee County Beautiful



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