Credit Alex Bond

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Plastics causing multi-organ damage in seabirds

Findings suggest the health impacts of plastic pollution on seabirds could previously have been grossly underestimated

New research shows that the presence of plastics in seabirds can induce multiple organ and tissue damage affecting the entire body in a multitude of ways, not just limited to the stomach as previously assumed.

A team of scientists, including the Natural History Museum’s Dr Alex Bond and Dr Jennifer Lavers, studied Flesh-footed Shearwaters from Australia’s Lord Howe Island to look at the relationship between macroplastic (>5 mm) and microplastic (<1 mm) exposure, and the effects of these pollutants on seabirds.

Shearwaters are known to ingest large quantities of plastics. Upon examining the proventriculus (main stomach component), kidney and spleen of the birds the team found all organs to have microplastic particles embedded within them. Severe physiological and medical issues were reported in each bird including tissue damage, a significant reduction in tubular glands, and folds within the proventriculus as well as evidence of inflammation, fibrosis and loss of organ structures in the kidney and spleen.

This damage correlated to the birds exposure to macroplastics and indicates that once ingested, macroplastics can release microplastics through a form of shedding or digestive fragmentation. As a result, there is potential for macroplastic exposure to further induce both direct and indirect medical issues and disease through microplastics meaning that the health impacts of plastic pollution on seabirds could previously have been grossly underestimated.

Principal Curator of Birds at the Museum Dr Alex Bond says, ‘Importantly, this study shows that the damage to seabirds caused by plastic ingestion is not confined to a single event. Macroplastics can puncture organs, block passageways and become absorbed before fragmenting into microplastics which can mobilise and cause widespread disease through inflammation and other mechanisms. It is crucial that we protect biodiversity and turn the tide on plastic pollution.’

The one-two punch of plastic exposure: Macro- and micro-plastics induce multi-organ damage in seabirds is printed in the Journal of Hazardous Materials.


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