Science

When It Comes To Microplastics, Some Seafood May Be Riskier

It only takes a trip to the coast to see the severity of the ocean’s plastic problem. Unfortunately, plastic does not readily decompose in the ocean. Instead, plastics typically break into smaller and smaller pieces, creating microplastics.

Plastics of all sizes are easily confused for food by marine animals. Sea turtles, for example, are known to mistake clear, plastic bags for jellyfish. However, microplastics, above all other forms of plastic pollution, are the type of plastic most frequently ingested by marine life.

Since microplastics usually start out in an animal’s gut, seafood which includes the animal’s stomach, like mussels, oysters, and other filter-feeding animals, may be more likely to carry microplastics to your dinner plate. In fact, one study estimates that people who eat large amounts of shellfish ingest about 11,000 microplastic particles each year.

However, shellfish are not the only seafood that can carry microplastics. In addition to accumulating in an animal’s gut, microplastics have been shown to move into the circulatory system or surrounding tissue, where the plastic may be more likely to be consumed by people. Fortunately, recent studies suggest such transitions are uncommon in fish, even when fed a diet high in microplastic pollution.

While the plastic particles themselves may not frequently end up in fish meat, there is evidence that the chemicals carried by plastics do, including toxic substances like flame retardants and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Despite the ubiquity of microplastics in the marine world and the unwitting consumption of microplastics by people, health officials estimate that less than 0.3% of microplastics can cross from the human gut into the body’s lymph and circulatory systems. Only the very smallest of these microplastics are then able to access our body’s organs.

Nonetheless, the effect of ingested microplastics on human health is poorly understood. With microplastics pervasive in much of the food we eat, including sea salt, beer, and honey, our best course of action may be to prevent plastics from entering the environment in the first place.


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