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May 7, 2004 9:30 AM   Subscribe

Microscopic fragments of plastic are a "major pollutant", floating in the ocean, settling on seabeds, and washing up onshore - with unknown consequences for marine ecosystems, according to a new study. "We've found this microscopic plastic material at all of the sites we've examined," [lead researcher] Dr Richard C Thompson [of University of Plymouth, UK] said. "Interestingly, the abundance is reasonably consistent. So, it suggests to us that the problem is really quite ubiquitous."
posted by mcgraw (15 comments total)
I thought plastics were fairly inert unless burned (which, while possible in the desert, is still fairly uncommon; and even in the desert, it's generally not burning but low-rate melting).

Not to defend polluting everything with plastics, but it doesn't strike me as very dangerous for marine ecosystems.
posted by azazello at 9:50 AM on May 7, 2004

From the New Scientist article:
The microplastics may have consequences for marine life. When the researchers put the tiny shavings into tanks with three marine species - amphipods, lugworms, and barnacles, all of the animals ate the plastic.
posted by mcgraw at 9:54 AM on May 7, 2004

I could have made that point more clearly, azazello.

The New Scientist article says:
In the future, he [Dr. Thompson] will study whether the ingested plastic can poison the animals or block their guts.

But, as mentioned earlier in that same article:
And millimetre-sized plastic pellets - the building blocks of larger products - clog US harbours and soak up toxic chemicals from seawater, poisoning the creatures that swallow them (New Scientist print edition, 20 January 2001).

So, it's possible that the smaller pieces of plastic could contain poison, and perhaps they could damage the gills and other vital organs.
posted by mcgraw at 10:14 AM on May 7, 2004

in the future, plastic will be the new sand. new species of hermit crab will evolve to depend entirely upon consumer demand and consequent disposal of certain brands of beverage containers in order to provide them with housing. industry will sprout upon location and excavation long forgotten landfills so as to mine the precious resources that lay within. the waste of the past becomes the nature of the future.
posted by Hackworth at 10:33 AM on May 7, 2004

I don't put any faith in anything I read in New Scientist. If 10% of their "warnings" came true, we'd all be long dead.
posted by jpoulos at 10:39 AM on May 7, 2004

Do you trust the Beeb, jpoulos?
posted by mcgraw at 10:52 AM on May 7, 2004

Hackworth - Nice, that's kind of where my imagination was heading.
posted by tomplus2 at 11:00 AM on May 7, 2004

I heard a great piece on NPR a few months ago about an area in the Pacific where currents intertwine and much of the garbage thrown into the ocean (mostly from boats) ends up - it is now a full-fledged floating island of garbage that maintains a relatively stable position. Just an interesting sidenote.
posted by adamms222 at 11:39 AM on May 7, 2004

Here's a link about the trash patch mentioned by adamms22. Crazy sh*t.
posted by jalexei at 11:55 AM on May 7, 2004

wow, quick research jalexei, and great find... thanks!
posted by adamms222 at 12:05 PM on May 7, 2004

Yeah, nice find jalexei. Thanks.
posted by mcgraw at 12:38 PM on May 7, 2004

Read a news blip last night, a cow in Europe had about 150lbs of plastic pulled from it's stomach. Can't find it on the net and sure it will surface next week.
posted by thomcatspike at 4:15 PM on May 7, 2004

Rubber duckies, accidently released at sea, are being used to study the "migration" of pollutants. Similarly, a a whole lot of wandering Nikes have been used to chart the drift of debris in the Pacific.
posted by SPrintF at 6:34 PM on May 7, 2004

Do you trust the Beeb, jpoulos?

Not for my science news, but I do trust the journal Science, the BBC's source for its story. (I didn't realize there were two links up there.)
posted by jpoulos at 6:32 AM on May 8, 2004

I do see your point about New Scientist and the tendancy to overstate the urgency of some articles, jpoulos.
posted by mcgraw at 1:11 PM on May 8, 2004

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