Microplastics a problem for ocean life – 11/17/2007

  • December 4, 2013 at 11:46 pm #1638

    This is going to get ugly’, ‘http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20071117.ZOE17/TPStory/Environment
    A toxic Trojan horse: Tiny plastic particles pack a major punch

    November 17, 2007


    THE NEWS The planet’s oceans are full of plastic trash that has broken down into microscopic particles. These “microplastics” are impossible to clean up. And now research suggests they act like tiny Trojan horses as well, carrying toxic chemicals that animals inadvertently swallow. Scientists at the University of Plymouth found that microplastics soaked up far more phenanthrene (a common marine pollutant) than samples of normal sand – and when the toxic microplastics were added to tanks of marine worms, the concentration of phenanthrene in their tissues shot up 80 per cent.

    THE BUZZ Professor Richard Thompson, who worked on the study with a team of scientists at Plymouth, had long suspected that animals might ingest toxins along with mouthfuls of microplastics. Now, he has proof. But the full environmental impact has yet to be researched, along with whether these microplastics and their toxic passengers could work their way up the food chain, right up to humans, as worms and other small creatures are eaten by predators.

    THE BOTTOM LINE The answer is not to ban plastics outright, Prof. Thompson says. Lightweight, durable and sterile, they are essential for modern medicine and technology. “But what do we do with most of the plastic we produce? Forty per cent of it is used to make plastic packaging, which is used once and then discarded. The long-term solution is to be smarter about our use of plastics.”

    THE NEWS The U.S. plan to clean up the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” – 6,000 square miles of fish-killing slime – could actually make it bigger, a study has found. For decades, nitrogen-rich farm fertilizers and phosphorus-laden waste have spawned explosions of algae and plankton in the gulf. These soak up all the oxygen, leaving the rest of the ecosystem breathless. But a paper coming out in next month’s issue of Environmental Science & Technology suggests that earlier recommendations to cut either nitrogen or phosphorous make this problem worse. Both chemicals need to be reduced.

    THE BUZZ Diminishing both phosphorous and nitrogen may revive marine life and a $1-billion fishing industry in the gulf – but it may not make farmers very happy. According to University of Michigan scientist Donald Scavia, the lead writer of the dead zone report, nitrogen flowing from the American heartland into the gulf could jump by 30 per cent if the current plan to expand ethanol production to six million hectares goes forward. The only solution? Less farm fertilizer, less harvesting, less liquid maize.

    THE BOTTOM LINE The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has embraced recommendations to cut both nitrogen and phosphorous. But there is currently no deadline to put that plan into action. And no move to counter the production of what Prof. Scavia calls “political holy water.” President George W. Bush has called for 35 billion gallons of ethanol by 2017.


    THE NEWS This month, recordings of Londoners opposing a third runway at Heathrow Airport – which could almost double annual flights to more than 800,000 a year from 470,000 – will be blasted at aviation and government representatives. Part of a large-scale push against noise and air pollution, the Stop Heathrow Expansion Campaign is backed by the mayor of London, local MPs and thousands of residents who will lose their homes if another landing strip is built.

    THE BUZZ The British government argues that aviation accounts for no more than 7 per cent of greenhouse gas-emissions in the United Kingdom. But Emily Armistead, a senior transport campaigner for Greenpeace, says those figures are misleading: Emissions at 30,000 feet have a greater impact than those at ground level, making the true figure closer to 13 per cent.

    THE BOTTOM LINE Thanks to tax breaks and subsidies, Brits can jet to European capitals for as little as £10. Not surprisingly, they are also the world’s busiest airline passengers – 40 per cent ahead of the Irish, the second-most-frequent fliers. “For the government to allow flights to quadruple by 2050 and still say they are serious about tackling climate change is absolute lunacy,” Ms. Armistead says.


    THE NEWS Air pollution from oceanic shipping could be responsible for as many as 60,000 premature deaths from lung cancer and cardiopulmonary disease every year, a study led by researchers at the University of Delaware and the Rochester Institute of Technology suggests. Scientists already knew that shipping was responsible for considerable air pollution, but this is the first study to estimate the impact on human health using emissions data and demographics.

    THE BUZZ This information comes as the International Maritime Organization meets to discuss possible emissions caps. Ships run on cheaper fuel that contains thousands of times more sulphur – in other words, it’s dirtier – than land vehicles. But since their smokestacks chug out at sea, the air quality of land dwellers was assumed to be unaffected. Given that 65 per cent of the world’s population lives along coastlines and 70 per cent of global shipping runs within 400 kilometres of shore, this impact seems to have been considerably underestimated.

    THE BOTTOM LINE Already 90 per cent of the world’s trade is transported by sea, and this figure grows every year. If stricter caps are not put on oceanic emissions, the number of deaths worldwide could rise by 40 per cent in just five years.

    Zoe Cormier is a science writer based in London. Her column appears every other week in Focus.

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