5 facts you need to know about Marine life and Microplastics

A little over four months on since the footage of pollution in Blue Planet II shocked the nation, the fight against plastic continues on Bournemouth and Poole beaches.

Bass and Mackerel, as well as other local marine life are now two of the 600 marine species whose lives are directly threatened as a result of plastic pollution[i]. In terms of casualties, One Green Planet recently estimated that over 100 million fish are killed annually by plastic[ii]. Even more shocking is research by the United Nations Environment Programme, which has indicated that humans may be vulnerable to unknown and potentially lethal toxins through the ingestion of fish whose stomachs contain plastic[iii]. In other words, we may be getting seriously ill from eating our own waste.

It seems the time to act could is now.

In recent years, there has been growing academic and professional alarm over the long term impact microplastics are having on marine life. Microplastics are defined as any piece of plastic between 2-6mm in length[iv] and are now widely considered to be more toxic than bulkier pieces[v]. However, there is little public knowledge of this. To counteract this, here are 5 key facts you need to know about microplastics …

  • Microplastics are called mermaid tears in the UK and there’s lots of them

Microplastics have been nicknamed mermaid tears in marine conservation circles around the UK. However, unlike the fantasy name, the consequences of mermaid tears have become all too real. A 2007 report produced by Surfers Against Sewage prewarned about the growing mermaid tear epidemic  and highlighted  that microplastics were the second most common pieces of litter found on UK beaches[vi]. Yet, it seems little has been done to solve this issue and a 2017 investigation by Greenpeace uncovered 250 million microplastics on UK beaches in just a single weekend[vii].

Professor Rick Stafford of Bournemouth University shared his local experience with microplastics; “If you tow a plankton net along for 5 or 10 minutes it’s amazing in terms of the number of microplastics that are actually in the water in what is actually a Site of Special Scientific Interest in Poole Harbour”.

Alas, it seems that even designated conservation sites may not be enough to protect marine life from microplastics.

  • Microplastics shrink certain marine species’ appetites

Research by Clean Water Action has found that a growing number of marine species are dying from chronic dietary limitations started by the ingestion of plastic[viii]. Let’s not forget, plastic is not designed to be eaten and thus has no nutritional benefits to offer. However, marine species do not know this and continue to ingest our waste in expense of their usual diet. The results have been truly shocking as an array of species of fish have begun to grow at a noticeably slower rate and an estimated 50-80% of dead sea turtles are found to have stomachs full of plastic[ix].

Worryingly, a study by the University of Exeter discovered that the ingestion and absorption of toxins in microplastics takes marine life up to six times longer to get rid of than bulkier plastics[x]. These findings, coupled with the fact that there is now a predicted 12 million tonnes of plastic going into the ocean each year, suggests that the stomachs of marine life may never be totally free from plastic[xi].

 

  • Microplastics act as a vector for other pollutants

Multiple academic studies have revealed that microplastics not only pose a direct threat to marine species, as they also act as vector for other pollutants in the environment[xii][xiii]. Currently, oil, carcinogenic toxins and other poisonous substances are enabled access to marine life through microplastics. For these reasons, Dr. José Derraik has warned that the diversity of global marine life is threatened to drop by as much as 58%[xiv].

However, the consequences of this stretch beyond marine life. After all, the accumulation of toxins within fish formed a key part of the United Nations Environment Programme’s decision to class microplastics as a threat to human life[xv]. This call came amid growing scientific evidence that these pollutants may still be dangerous even after the fish has been cooked or washed[xvi]. Seemingly, we now join marine life in being vulnerable to the repercussions of plastic pollution.

  • Microplastics limit fish mating and so much more

Arguably the most saddening consequence of plastic pollution have been the changes in the everyday behaviour of marine life. Initially, these changes were attributed to the species adapting to their new plastic neighbours. However, new evidence by Professor Maria Fossi has dispelled these suggestions  in the darkest possible way[xvii].

Professor Fossi’s study uncovered polystyrene particles in the brain tissue of fish[xviii]. Alongside this, the study also found that these particles changed the brain structure of fish, and deduced that the presence of these particles was the sole reason for any behavioural changes[xix]. Worryingly, among these changes has been a decline in marine species potency and desire to mate with one another.

“It’s truly upsetting and disgusting”, said lifelong Dorset resident Sophie Price, “To think our waste has prevented the existence of potentially millions of lives” of marine species.

Miss Price’s comments are echoed within the conservation community who now fear that our waste has permanently changed the day-to-day lives of marine species.

  • There’s so much we do not know about microplastics

Unfortunately, the worst is saved for last. “The long term effects we don’t necessarily know”, stated Professor Stafford, “There seems to be some evidence that it’s having a slow negative effect on marine life and even if they can expel it, it is still going to have a negative effect”.

Professor Stafford’s concerns are recurrently found within multiple academic studies[xx]. All of which acknowledge that it may take many years for the true impacts of microplastics to become clear. However, it is certain that any impacts will be harmful to marine life.

How can you help?

Marine life is defenceless and needs your help in the fight against plastic pollution. Please find the links to some local environmental groups below and let’s work together to protect our oceans.

Friends of the Earth: https://friendsoftheearth.uk/groups/eastdorset

Bournemouth 2026 Trust: http://www.bournemouth2026.org.uk/sustain

SUBU Green: https://www.subu.org.uk/green

Greenpeace advice on cutting plastic: https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/9-ways-reduce-plastic-use/

BY JONATHAN EVANS

[i] Mattsson, K., Johnson, E., Malmenda, A., Linse, S., Hansson, L., and Cedervall, T., 2017. Brain damage and behavioural disorders in fish induced by plastic nanoparticles delivered through the food chain, Scientific Reports, 7 (1), 1-7.

[ii] Henn, C., 2017. These 5 marine animals are dying because of our plastic trash…Here’s how we can help. One Green Planet [online], 5th February 2017. Available from: http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/marine-animals-are-dying-because-of-our-plastic-trash/ [Accessed 20th February 2018].

[iii] UN Environment, 2017. Frontiers 2017: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern. United Nations Environment Programme [online], 5th December 2017. Available from: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/22255/Frontiers_2017_EN.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y [Accessed 19th February 2018].

[iv] Derraik, J., 2002. The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: A review, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 44 (9), 842-852.

[v] Mattsson, K., Johnson, E., Malmenda, A., Linse, S., Hansson, L., and Cedervall, T., 2017. Brain damage and behavioural disorders in fish induced by plastic nanoparticles delivered through the food chain, Scientific Reports, 7 (1), 1-7.

 

[vi] Le Guern Lytle, C., 2017. When the mermaids cry: The great plastic tide. Coastal Care [online], 1st January 2017. Available from: http://plastic-pollution.org/ [Accessed 23rd February 2018].

[vii] McClenaghan, M., 2017. Hundreds of thousands of plastic pellets found on UK beaches. Unearthed [online], 17th February 2017. Available from: https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2017/02/17/hundreds-thousands-plastics-pellets-found-uk-beaches/ [Accessed 16th February 2018].

[viii] Clean Water Action, 2018. The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution. Clean Water Action [online], 1st January 2018. Available from: https://www.cleanwater.org/problem-marine-plastic-pollution [Accessed 25th February 2018].

[ix] Mrosovsky, N., 2009. Leatherback turtles: The menace of plastic, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 58 (2), 287-289.

 

[x] Watts, A., Lewis, C., Goodhead, R., Beckett, S., Moger, J., Tyler, C., and Galloway, T., 2014. Uptake and retention of microplastics by the shore Crab Carcinus maenas, Environmental Science and Technology, 48 (15), 8823-8830.

[xi] Casson, L., 2017. How does plastic end up in the Ocean? Greenpeace [online[, 22nd August 2017. Available from: https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/plastic-end-ocean/ [Accessed 25th February 2018].

[xii] Mattsson, K., Johnson, E., Malmenda, A., Linse, S., Hansson, L., and Cedervall, T., 2017. Brain damage and behavioural disorders in fish induced by plastic nanoparticles delivered through the food chain, Scientific Reports, 7 (1), 1-7.

[xiii] Karlsson, T., Arneborg, L., Brostrom, G., Carney Almroth, B., Gipperth, L., and Hassellov, M., 2018. The unaccountability case of plastic pellet pollution, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 129 (1), 52-60.

[xiv] Derraik, J., 2002. The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: A review, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 44 (9), 842-852.

 

[xv] UN Environment, 2017. Frontiers 2017: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern. United Nations Environment Programme [online], 5th December 2017. Available from: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/22255/Frontiers_2017_EN.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y [Accessed 19th February 2018].

 

[xvi] Foekema, E., Gruijter, C., Mergia, M., Andries Van Franeker, J., Tinka, A., Murk, J., and Koelmans, A., 2013. Plastic in North Sea Fish, Environmental Science and Technology, 47 (15), 8818-8824.

[xvii] Fossi, M., Coppola, D., Baini, M., Giannetti, M., Guerranti, C., Marsili, L., Panti, C., Sabata, E., and Clò, S., 2014. Large filter feeding marine organisms as indicators of microplastics in the pelagic environment: The case studies of the Mediterranean basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) and fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), Marine Environmental Research, 100, 17-24.

[xviii] Fossi, M., Coppola, D., Baini, M., Giannetti, M., Guerranti, C., Marsili, L., Panti, C., Sabata, E., and Clò, S., 2014. Large filter feeding marine organisms as indicators of microplastics in the pelagic environment: The case studies of the Mediterranean basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) and fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), Marine Environmental Research, 100, 17-24.

 

[xix] Fossi, M., Coppola, D., Baini, M., Giannetti, M., Guerranti, C., Marsili, L., Panti, C., Sabata, E., and Clò, S., 2014. Large filter feeding marine organisms as indicators of microplastics in the pelagic environment: The case studies of the Mediterranean basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) and fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), Marine Environmental Research, 100, 17-24.

[xx] Karlsson, T., Arneborg, L., Brostrom, G., Carney Almroth, B., Gipperth, L., and Hassellov, M., 2018. The unaccountability case of plastic pellet pollution, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 129 (1), 52-60.

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How much of a threat is biological terrorism?

In a recent speech given to the Munich security conference, philanthropist and business magnate Bill Gates argued that biological terrorism is the greatest threat posed to the world currently. Intriguingly, Mr. Gates noted that biological terrorism had the potential to inflict a greater number of causalities than nuclear war, with tens of millions being at threat from a single attack. The evidence highlighted by Mr. Gates’ originated from his ongoing funding and drive to improve global health through the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, which concluded there to be a lack attention given to the link between health security and international security within Western nations. In this sense, Mr. Gates’ is critically referring to the over emphasis placed upon the threat posed by lone wolf terrorism and the ideal of the enemy within, rather than consider the larger and much more problematic threat of biological weapons. On the other hand, can you truly blame western nations for focusing upon lone wolf terrorism over biological terrorism given that it has directly affected the majority of western nations in recent years. Therefore, one must question how great a threat biological terrorism is and whether there is any evidence of terrorist groups trying to procure and use biological weapons in the past.

In the years following the end of the cold war researchers argued that the use of biological weapons over nuclear weapons was far more likely given the differences in size and availability, though many of these studies also noted the volume of international treaties and conventions nullified any states attempts to use such weapons. However, in the post 9/11 security paradigm the global antagonist is no longer a rogue state but rather a multitude of terrorist organisations spread across the globe who are not bound to any international treaties or agreements, thus making the potential use of biological weapons very real. In fact, US and UK intelligence services have in the past noted that the Islamic state have attempted to develop biological weapons in Syria and Iraq. A claim supported by UK minister for security Ben Wallace who contends that terrorist organisations such as Islamic state lack any sense of morality which may be a barrier to the use of biological weapons.

The growth in concerns about the use of biological weapons is primarily resultant of the improvement in technology simplifying the changing of the molecular structure of deadly diseases, along with the emergence and spread of new forms of disease. An obvious example of such a disease would be the Ebola virus which killed 11,310 people and infected 28, 616 people between 2013-2016 in West Africa. Although, a 2015 study conducted by a UK top-secret military research centre in Wiltshire found that Ebola lacked the immediate devastating effect desired by terrorists, however noted that it would effectively spread fear amongst the public. Resulting from these findings, one must question whether the use of biological weapon would be the most effective means of attaining the high number of causalities desired by terrorist organisations and therefore would such organisations consider using biological weapons.

In order to answer the above question, one must delve into the history of biological weapon use in terrorist organisations. Interestingly, upon studying a selection of attempted terrorist attacks using biological weapons there are two consistent similarities found within most examples. These are that they occur within America and are undertaken by white supremacist groups. In these select cases the chemical agents used have ranged from ricin, typhoid and the bubonic plague. All of which have been attempted to be released in a multitude of differing ways such as poisoning the water supply. In this sense, the number of differing toxins and methods of releasing such toxins would suggest that Mr. Gates argument for increasing the attention and spending given to the defence of biological weapons is entirely warranted. Therefore, one must consider Mr. Gates’ warnings over the lack of interest and funding given to biological warfare defence gravely concerning.