A first-of-its-kind study recently revealed that under current levels of marine plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, microplastics accumulate in the bodies of shellfish in mere hours moving plastics that much further up the food chain.
The study was conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Plymouth where they exposed great scallop (Pecten maximus) found in the country’s oceans to concentrated plastic nanoparticles. The study, which was published on Nov. 20 in Environmental Science & Technology, concluded that billions of tiny plastic particles accumulated in the bodies of shellfish in just six hours.
“The results of the study show for the first time that nanoparticles can be rapidly taken up by a marine organism, and that in just a few hours they become distributed across most of the major organs,” Dr. Maya Al Sid Cheikh, research leader from the University of Plymouth, said in a press release.
The study was part of a project by RealRiskNano led by the University of Plymouth and Heriot-Watt University and funded by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), a U.K.-based investment in environmental science, “to determine the real risk posed by microplastics in the marine environment.”
The press release reported that “after six hours exposure in the laboratory, billions of particles measuring 250nm (around 0.00025mm) had accumulated within the scallop’s intestines. However, considerably more even smaller particles measuring 20nm (0.00002mm) had become dispersed throughout the body including the kidney, gill, muscle and other organs.”
“In this study, the scallops were exposed to quantities of carbon-radiolabeled nanopolystyrene and after six hours, autoradiography was used to show the number of particles present in organs and tissue.”
After being exposed to nanoparticles for a few hours, the scallops still were then transferred to clean conditions, but traces of plastic were still detected in their bodies weeks later, according to the press release.
The ground-breaking study is the first step in “understanding the dynamics of nanoparticle uptake and release, as well as their distribution in body tissues,” which is essential “to understand any potential effects on organisms,” Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, said.
“Understanding whether plastic particles are absorbed across biological membranes and accumulate within internal organs is critical for assessing the risk these particles pose to both organism and human health,” Ted Henry, Professor of Environmental Toxicology at Heriot-Watt University, said. “The novel use of radiolabelled plastic particles pioneered in Plymouth provides the most compelling evidence to date on the level of absorption of plastic particles in a marine organism.”