WARNING - CONFRONTING IMAGE: A new plastic-induced disease found in seabirds has scientists calling for more research into the pollutant's impact on human tissue.
An Australian study has found large amounts of scar tissue inside the stomach lining of all 30 flesh-footed shearwaters. Dubbed “plasticosis”, the new illness was detected on Lord Howe Island, 700 km northeast of Sydney and reported in Journal of Hazardous Materials by Adrift Lab in March.
While the study focused on a particular bird, it's estimated around 1200 other marine species also ingest plastic and some could be suffering similar symptoms.
As humans are also inadvertently consuming increasing amounts of plastic through food, drinking water and household dust, the study could also be important in understanding plastic's impact on our own health.
A separate 2023 research paper estimated people could ingest almost 90,000 microplastics annually from using a plastic cup once every four to five days. Bottled water and even beer have previously been singled out as containing high numbers of microplastics.
"It is crucial to better understand the impacts of plastic on biota, so that we can also better understand how our own tissues may respond to this pollutant," the seabird study authors warn.
Which organs are being affected by plastic?
Study author Hayley Charlton-Howard told Yahoo News Australia that with plastic pollution in the environment set to increase, human exposure to plastic is “basically inevitable”, adding the situation is “quite scary”.
Researching the effect of plastic ingestion in wild species is a relatively new field of research. Fragments have previously been found in their flesh, likely resulting in stunted growth and altered blood chemistry. Adrift Lab's new research examines how macro and microplastics are resulting in fibrosis in the stomach.
Previous studies by the group found plastic fragments inside organs responsible for filtration like kidneys and liver, as well as digestive organs. Other research has detected them in human breast milk, blood and placenta as well as the heart and brain of other mammals.
"Due to the potential impacts of plastic on the health of wildlife, and humans by extension, our results thus highlight the urgent need to continue to strengthen our knowledge of the sub-lethal impacts of this diverse pollutant," the study concluded.
How does Plasticosis affect seabirds?
Ms Charlton-Howard said once tissue is scarred by plastic ingestion, it cannot function as it would in a healthy stomach because it loses flexibility. “In the stomach, the purpose is to be able to expand, move and contract in order to digest food. Any restriction on that movement can really affect how the stomach is able to function and also its ability to store food,” she said.
The other key concern is plastic’s impact on digestive glands within birds, which were found to be damaged and changed in structure. As these glands release fluid which is responsible for helping to process food, it’s believed the birds' ability to absorb nutrients could be compromised.
Because the glands are also responsible for hydrochloric acid and stomach mucus which helps aid in the prevention of infection, it’s believed birds could be more susceptible to disease and parasites. “That’s really bad because plastics are known vectors for pathogens,” Ms Charlton-Howard said. “As plastics move around the environment, they can collect parasites and bacteria and viruses on their surface. And when that's eaten, those pathogens can be transported into the stomach.”
Could Plasticosis also affect humans?
Despite having a low garbage output, Lord Howe Island is frequently inundated with plastic from other cities by ocean currents. As a result, the birds studied had ingested unusually high amounts. “With one of the birds about 10 per cent of its body weight was plastic,” Ms Charlton-Howard said.
While the impact of plastic on humans is unlikely to be as severe as it is in birds, its impact will still likely be felt. “It doesn't bode well for any other species that may also be found to ingest plastic,” she said.
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