Insidious Danger: Microplastics Pollute Aquatic Life and Harm Our Food Supply

By Roberta Attanasio, IEAM Blog Editor

microplastic on blk bkgrnd

Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Microplastics—the tiny bits of plastic that are now infamously and ubiquitously present in the world’s waterways—are polluting aquatic life and ending up in our food supply. As evidence of the damage that microplastics inflict on aquatic life accumulates, so does the amount of microplastics dispersed in oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. Virtually indestructible in natural environments, these tiny bits of plastic contain a combination of very small particles—microparticles and nanoparticles—that derive from the breakdown of larger plastic items, for example plastic bags and bottles, and include, among others, pre-production plastic pellets (the so-called nurdles), microbeads from personal care products, and microfibers from textiles.

Gyre patch water

Water sample from the garbage patch in the Pacific Gyre. In some spots in the Gyre, researchers say, the plastic outnumbers the plankton 6 to 1. Credit: kqedquest, CC BY-NC 2.0.

In 2015, researchers demonstrated that, off the coast of British Columbia, both copepods and euphausiids—the zooplankton at the bottom of the marine food web—contain microplastics. In other words, zooplankton are mistaking microplastics for food. Because copepods and euphausiids serve as a primary food source for juvenile salmon, the researchers estimated that a juvenile salmon off the British Columbia coast would consume two to seven microplastic particles per day in its prey, and returning adult salmon would ingest close to a hundred per day.

Not surprising, then, are the findings from a study showing that many species of fish and shellfish sold for human consumption in Makassar, Indonesia, and California, U.S., contain plastic debris. Six out of the 11 species tested in Indonesia, and 8 out of 12 species tested in California (including striped bass and Chinook salmon) contained plastic or other anthropogenic debris. Interestingly, all debris recovered from fish in Indonesia was plastic, whereas debris recovered from fish in California was primarily fibers, a likely reflection of differences in sources of plastics and waste management strategies between the two countries.

Thus, a little at a time, we’re starting to understand the magnitude of the problem. The latest discovery on the effects of plastic pollution on aquatic life comes from researchers at Uppsala University, Sweden: larval European perch exposed to microplastics during development not only show stunted growth and increased mortality rates but also changes in behavior. Exposed fish swim shorter distances and are more likely to spend time motionless. In addition, plastic microbeads affect their olfactory senses, which are used to detect predators and trigger anti-predator behaviors. Altogether, these changes endanger fish survival by making them more likely to be killed by predators.


Copepod, an abundant component of zooplankton. Credit: Ivan Bachev, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Even more disconcerting is the finding that larval perch develop a taste for microplastics—when given access to the particles, they eat only microplastics and ignore free-swimming zooplankton, their natural source of food. Peter Eklöv, co-author of the study, said in a press release: “This is the first time an animal has been found to preferentially feed on plastic particles and is cause for concern.”

Other anthropogenic activities have caused massive fish die-offs recently, resulting in serious economic damage to regional and international fishing industries, not to mention long-lasting ecological changes. A few months ago, an estimated 40,000 tons of farmed salmon died in the Los Lagos region of Chile due to the so-called red tide—an algal bloom that turns the seawater red and makes seafood toxic. At the same time, millions of dead fish lined the beaches over 200 kilometers of central Vietnam, apparently as a result of toxic discharges from a Taiwanese-owned steel plant.

Charles Moore

Captain Charles Moore. Credit: Nels Israelson, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Microplastics pollution poses a much more insidious danger to aquatic life than algal blooms or toxic discharges—we are not aware of massive die-offs caused by it, because its effects are cumulative and sub-lethal rather than cause sudden, catastrophic events. However, given the enormous and continuously increasing amount of microplastics present in the world’s waterways, it is reasonable to expect the discovery of more long-lasting, negative impacts on fish survival and seafood quality. We may never know the full effects though. Californian oceanographer Captain Charles J. Moore, who first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and studies the impact of seaborne plastic, told CNN: “It is impossible to quantify death in the ocean as weak and dying creatures are so rapidly consumed.”

Plastic pollution is a recognized global threat, and this recognition has led to the launch of major initiatives, as for example the Global Partnership on Marine Litter, which brings together policymakers, conservationists, and business interests in order to develop solutions to reduce and manage marine litter. However, sustainable solutions for plastic pollution should include intervention that minimizes the disposable plastic culture and, moreover, the throwaway culture.

17 thoughts on “Insidious Danger: Microplastics Pollute Aquatic Life and Harm Our Food Supply

  1. Ray Kinney

    Part of the chemical makeup of ‘plastics’ are the various plasticizers added to maintain the other ingredients in a usable state. Many of the plasticizers have toxic effects potentials on their own, as they degrade slowly from the plastic.


    Very sad to see this in a SETAC-IEAM venue:
    The following two publications are the first of several that attempt to bring “risk” back into the discussion of microplastics and their lack of effects in our ecosystems.
    No one wants plastics – but it is very sad to see scientists forgetting that the basics of risk is exposure tied to effects. No realistic exposures demonstrate adverse effects. Lets focus on what matters.
    Burton GA. 2015. Losing sight of science in the regulatory push to ban microbeads from consumer products and industrial use. Integrated Environ Assess Mgmt.11(3):346-347. DOI: 10.1002/ieam.1645
    Koelmans B, Bakir A, Burton GA, Janseen, C. 2016. Microplastic as a Vector for Chemicals in the Aquatic Environment. Critical Review and Model-Supported Re-interpretation of Empirical Studies. Environ Sci Technol DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b0606

    1. Richard Wenning

      I respectfully disagree with Dr. Burton. I am not saddened by either blog’s presentation of this topic or the behavior of scientists involved in pursuit of this area of research. The presence of microplastics in aquatic food chains is not a trivial global environmental challenge. The field of ecotoxicology is associated with a tremendous volume of experimental studies involving chemical exposure to organisms at unrealistic exposure levels for the purposes of understanding dose-response and setting environmental quality standards for health and ecological safety. And, indeed, while the basic concept of risk is exposure tied to effects… uncertainty is an equally important and unforgettable component of the risk paradigm and clouds clear judgment about both exposure and effects.

      Review of the rapidly growing science literature on this topic indicates two important concerns about the environmental challenge posed by microplastics. One set of concerns focuses on the physical damage posed by exposure and ingestion of the particles themselves; the accumulation in the gut, and perhaps retention at the organ and cellular level in animals from top to bottom in aquatic food webs. Another set of concerns focuses on the chemical composition and additives in the particles and the possibility for exposure after ingestion as a consequence of digestion, perhaps, and/or further weathering/degradation. The physical effects and behavioral changes associated with exposure to microplastics are better understood, at present, than the chemical-related concerns (see e.g., Cole et al. 2011 and Andrady 2011 Mar Pollut Bull; Wright et al. 2013 Environ Pollut.).

      As the blog points out, more research in the field and in the laboratory is warranted to understand both the physical and chemical challenges to aquatic life posed by microplastics. The unique features of the potential for physical and chemical harm posed by exposure to microplastics should not be framed in a classical chemical ecotoxicology paradigm. We must be careful as ecotoxicologist not to be dismissive of what is perceived by many in the global scientific community to be a serious and growing environmental issue.

    2. MAURICE G

      Very happy to see this post on microplastics in a SETAC-IEAM venue. It shows a clear understanding of, and commitment to, one of the most fundamental obligations of the scientific community.: communicate science to the non-scientific community. This beautiful post makes accessible the major points of complex scientific articles to a more general audience, and places scientific discoveries in a global context of interest to a large sector of citizens concerned about the environment. So sad to see there are still representatives of the Ivory Tower that do not understand the importance of bringing scientific discoveries to communities that place great value on the well-being of our planet and our societies.

  3. Leila Kartforosh

    Microplastics and plastic pollution in the ocean also pose a further threat to endangered aquatic organisms, such as sea turtles. These organisms are not only effected by consuming the plastic, but also by entanglement or suffocation caused by ocean litter. Although it may seem impossible to clean the ocean, specifically the Pacific Gyre, I believe that new technology and time can at least improve the situation. Ocean pollution is something that more people need to be educated about and the government should pay more attention to.
    The plastic problem will continuously worsen with time unless more companies decide to become more sustainable when it comes to plastic packaging, especially major companies. From my understanding, the production of biodegradable plastics is increasing. However, I don’t believe these new plastics will significantly help the environment. Biodegradable plastics still take years to degrade and they often require specific conditions in order to properly biodegrade. Another problem is that many people do not recycle, therefore the bioplastics would end up in landfills or oceans and produce greenhouse gases due to lack of proper degrading conditions. An article I read, also made a good point in saying that consumers will believe improper disposal or littering with biodegradable plastics would be forgivable. A misconception that will still negatively impact the environment.
    In my opinion, the use of any sort of plastic should be minimized as much as possible. There are alternative packaging options available, and often times products are using unnecessary amounts of plastic. For example, a bag inside of a bag or a large container for a small amount of food. Small changes made by each individual in terms of reducing plastic consumption and living more sustainably can have a huge impact on the environment.

    1. Allie Mitchell

      Great points, well made Leila. New technology and a better understanding of how much a lack of recycling and an increase in the use of plastics could effect the world in a drastic way for the better. Unfortunately, there are so many initiatives and groups out there currently trying to make our oceans and environment a healthier place to live, but the idea that the entire world itself is just going to understand the facts of how negatively impacted the environment actually is is quite a stretch. Companies will continue to do what they do and use the products that they use because becoming more sustainable is healthier for the world, but most times it is an expensive venture. Places do not want to spend money doing something that, yes could help out in the long run, when they can just continue to proceed the way they have and keep more money in their pockets. Places such as restaurants are most likely the same way; seeing as how fish are eating bits and pieces of microplastics, which in turn get feed to us when we eat them. Do people really think that certain restaurants don’t know that plastic pollution is an issue and that they should be monitoring the food they intake for human consumption more closely? They do know, but making a change would most likely not be cost effective, so nothing changes. Small changes need to be made indeed; we as individuals can make them but bigger places that trickle down to us need to make them as well.

  4. Chinasa Enujioke

    Polyethylene is the most common plastic in the world. On annual, we produce around 80 million tons of plastic each year. Plastic is the primary use is in packaging and are also present in some of our daily products such as toothpaste, face wash, body wash, shampoos, conditional
    soaps. The problem with plastics is that they are mostly nonbiodegradable and when they do degrade they become microscopic which we call microplastic. The problem with microplastic is that many aquatic animals cannot differentiate the different between microplastic and zooplankton. The study had shown that larval salmon Perch that were exposed to microplastics preferred it even when actually food was given to them. This information alone made me want to do something because if care is not taken, we will reach a point where we are not able to sustain our environment. Everything in our environment plays a key role, and us human have been so used to our throw-away culture that we do not even question it anymore. Microplastic is not only affectes aquatic life but us human as well even though we are not sure how yet. There are many ways in which we can help cut down the use of plastics. And they include using paper bags when going glossy shopping using products like target brand up and up that has removed polyethylene in their phase wash and plan on doing so in every one of their products by the end of the year. We can also adopt the system that countries such as South Africa, Uganda, Somalia, Rwanda Botswana, Kenya & Ethiopia, which all have total bans in place for plastic, like that of China India and Bangladesh that has total bans in effect regards plastic bags since June 1st, 2008 and making sure that all 50 states has this law in effect not just 17 sates as we have now. I’m aware that many companies will be concerned about the impact of change that this occurrence will result in their production, but when you look at it, they not considering the total cost of their product. However, they’re already expensive and adding 10 cents to everything won’t hurt us as much as not doing something today to save our environment. Studies have shown that as of 2050 the ratio of plastic to fish will be ˃1:1. There are over 85% of microplastic in our environment as of 2016, and we have to take action and save birds, salmons, shellfish and ultimately us humans.

    Desforges, J.W., Galbraith, M. & Ross, P.S. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol (2015) 69: 320. doi:10.1007/s00244-015-0172-5
    The plastic plague washing up on our shores

  5. YYemane1

    This is an insightful article that explains the harm plastics cause on the environment on a much smaller scale and combines that harm with its greater consequences. The interesting thing I noticed about this article is that it did note that “minimizing disposable plastic culture and throwaway culture” can help reduce plastic pollution. Another way to help plastic pollution is through the use of bioplastics. Bioplastics originate from renewable feedstocks like corn, potatoes, rice, tapioca, wood cellulose, and wheat fiber. Although bioplastics can come in both biodegradable and non-biodegradable forms, it is important to utilize the biodegradable forms because it will allow environmental microbes to utilize it as food instead of mistaking the dangerous non-biodegradable microplastics as food like the zooplankton have. Examples of items that have and can be made by bioplastics include cutlery, plates, bags, carpets, cups, and packaging materials. One way the government can motivate companies to shift from using microplastics and other non-biodegradable plastics is to provide incentives, whether monetary or in the form of tax cuts, to companies that choose bioplastics or other safer biodegradable options. However, in the meantime while we wait for the general adoption of bioplastics, we as citizens can do small things such as reusing and recycling plastics.

    About Bioplastics. (n.d.). Retrieved July 24, 2016, from

  6. Jingyao

    Nowadays, plastic is ubiquitous in our lives, and plastic becomes important and inevitable material for packaging and so on. As we all know, plastic is used frequently in our lives but the time of manufacturing is very short. We always used plastic for a couple of minutes and then dispose it. As a rule, we discarded plastic millions of tons of plastic each year, like 30 million tons per year in the USA. However, plastic is not natural product so it is difficult for nature to break it down. Because of its versatile and durable properties, disposal of plastic waste is a big problem threatening the environment and organisms. The big challenge for plastic dump, which can persist in landfill for many years, is to figure out the solutions:
    1. According to my experience, China is trying to reduce the use of plastic bags. In China, in order to encourage people to use their own reusable shopping bags, the policy stipulated that customers have to pay for the plastic bags instead of getting them free.
    2. Besides that, plastic pollution in the oceans is related to microplastics, which are always added to face cleaners and toothpaste. People can avoid using the products with “polypropylene” or “polyethylene”.
    3. One of the easiest way is to avoid gums. In the past, gums were made of natural rubber. But nowadays, more and more companies make synthetic rubbers, which are polyethylene and polyvinyl acetate. Although avoiding one gum is a small contribution to the plastic problem, it will change the situation if everyone keeps it in mind.
    4. Paying attention to the recycling of plastic waste. In 2009, only 7 percent plastic waste was recycled. Recycling is one of the efficient way to reduce the pollution generated by plastic.
    Those are all the easy ways that everyone can do to solve the problems, we have to be aware of the seriousness of the plastic waste and face with this challenge together.

  7. April Jacobs

    From 1.7 million metric tons to 299 million metric tons in 1950 to 2013, plastic production has become a growing industry. Even though plastic is convenient and useful, it’s also a threat to not only aquatic life but to humans as well. Many products that we use on a daily basis contain two of the most common plastics products: polycarbonate and polystyrene. It’s used in packaging for food, household items, and even baby bottles. Studies have shown that polystyrene is a less harmful plastic, however polycarbonate is more severe to the human body. Polycarbonate contains bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that reacts with phosgene to make polycarbonate. Endocrine disturbance and contaminated human blood and urine all derive from BPA. BPA can also be carcinogenic. The production of BPA, polystyrene, and polycarbonate all enter the oceans through rivers and streams contributing to the destruction of our aquatic organisms and humans as well. Over time, constant exposure to these chemicals will eventually tear down the aquatic ecosystems and the health of humans. So how can we stop this? Right now, we can’t. Since plastic is one of the most common packaging products being produced, it will take years to find a substitute. How can we reduce the expose and/or usage in the meantime? Recycling, creating better water filtration systems, and even avoiding products that are packaged in plastic can contribute to the reduction of exposure. Nevertheless, something must be done!

  8. Shreyasi Ghosal

    The topic of this blog made happy to see that there is a concern for microplastics and how this is affecting the aquatic life. These microplastics contains heavy metals such as cadmium and lead and many organisms such as sea turtles are consuming these microplastics, thinking it is either algae or zooplankton. Consuming plastics can be at risk for intestinal compaction or tearing, digestive suppression and exposure to chemical toxins that are located on the surface of the plastics. The insidious characteristic of plastic is that they cannot biodegrade. Plastic can attract and accumulates non-soluble toxins such as DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) in high concentrations. In 2015, salmon’s primary food sources are eating microplastics in which is affecting the salmon’s health as well. This is affecting the fishing industry very badly. Salmon is a food source for animals such as bear and humans too. Since microplastics does not have the ability to break down and if the salmon is consumed, this may affect the health of those organisms as well. We must find ways to stop harming the aquatic environments and there are small ways to help. If there is a plastic bottle or bag laying on the beach, just pick it up and throw it in a trash bin. These small steps can help make a huge difference in the environment.

  9. Vanessa Garapola

    I believe the magnitude of this problem calls for rapid response from people and institutions who can make a large impact primarily and secondarily from people who can alter their lifestyles and take so-called “baby steps” to alter this unbelievably unsustainable way of life to which we have adapted. I am encouraged by the initiatives being taken by groups such as the Global Partnership on Marine Litter as mentioned in the blog post. However, I can’t help but think about the politics involved in pollution policies, or lack thereof. If we could come together to put some politician into a powerful position who actually cares about pollution first and foremost, maybe we can tackle big companies such as Coca-Cola and Nestle whom contribute to an incredibly large amount of plastic production in the environment. Possibly, a leader who can and will make a difference, could force large and global companies to change their packaging through a series of new laws. If the companies refuse to cooperate, they should be required to pay a very substantial fine which should then be funneled back into research on pollutants and cleaning up our environment. As I read back through the first sentence of this post, I am reminding myself that these large changes cannot happen if citizens of the world don’t come together and demand a major change. These large companies that package food and/or water rely on OUR dollars to keep running their business. Would it really be that hard for us to buy food in bulk or reuse glass bottles for water and other drinks? Are we, as humans on planet Earth, really going to allow our desire for convenience and laziness to harmfully impact the very environment on which we rely for survival? Will we keep turning a blind eye to the obvious impact that our lack of sustainability is having on the world around us? It is up to us to make the small changes in our lives and the lives of our family/friends as to spread awareness and ultimately demand change at a higher level. I am afraid to see the impacts on our health and the health of future generations. It is sad that this is an avoidable problem that we have come to accept as a whole. It is unacceptable.

  10. Amir Tabaei

    Pollution caused by plastic is a subject which has drawn much attention in its effect on soil, air and water. Although plastic is one of the most indispensable materials, as a result of its overuse in the past several decades, society is faced with the problem of counteracting its negative aspects. Plastics pollution has its effect on marine life, causing suffocation and death of marine life as a result of starvation. One of the most important concerns is the effect of this pollution on zooplankton, as they are primary producers and such a toxic environment can interrupt the food web as Dr. Attanasio mentioned in this article. Plastic waste has low density and can cover the surface water in the ocean, which blocks sunlight, and consequently leads to the disruption of the phytoplankton photosynthesis. Another effect of plastic debris is its impact on the digestive system of seabirds which, too, can result in death from starvation. As we go further, this is obvious that plastics pollution has deadly effects on human health by impacting the food chain. Therefore, proper action is necessary.

    Dealing with this problem is not only limited to finding a solution to prevent unnecessary usage of plastics, but also the issue of eliminating the excess amount of plastic debris already present in the ocean. Using other materials instead of plastic, such as paper bags, and instituting a recycling system to prevent the mixing of plastics with household trash can greatly reduce the amount of toxic waste mankind contributes to the environment. Since plastic has durability and can stay in the ocean for a long period of time, cleaning the ocean from this debris is critical and needs dedication in order to support and join any related organizations and coalitions in this effort.

  11. aisha suarez

    Reading articles like this one make you pause for a minute and think about all that is going on around you. Today seafood is believed to be one of the healthiest food categories by many people not having the slightest idea that it could actually be worse. If fishes eat microplastics, man eats fish then consequently man is eating plastic. What makes the situation more alarming is that normal everyday people are contributing to these types of pollutions unknowingly. Even more alarming is that those that are responsible for managing waste disposal continue to do so fully knowing that these are hazardous to aquatic lives as well as humans. No wonder cases of deadly diseases such as cancer and what not has increased tremendously in numbers over time. It is now a burden worldwide and one of the leading causes of death in the US. I am not saying that eating plastic is the reason why this is happening but could it be? If we think about it carefully, we can come to the conclusion that even if it is not, we can at least say for sure that the old world was by far less polluted than today’s world; interestingly people lived longer and healthier lives back then; thus, there could be a correlation here; It shows how much the world has changed over the past 100 years or so. In addition, a passage in the article explained how changes occur in the exposed animals such as physical changes, behavioral changes, increased mortality rate and more interestingly some developed taste for microplastics by rejecting their usual food. Over time, I believe that these changes can lead to long term consequences for instance extinction of the some species because they might not be able to withstand the life style. This will be of a major concern since sea resource is one of the main sources of food for humans. Therefore, I think we should find a solution to the problem with aquatic pollution with plastics because it affects sea lives but mainly because it can affects our health.

    Avio C, Gorbi S, Regoli F. Plastics and microplastics in the oceans: From emerging pollutants to emerged threat. Marine Environmental Research [serial online]. May 15, 2016; Available from: Science Direct, Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 26, 2016.

  12. Nithya Paranthaman

    It’s unfortunate to see how large of an issue we have at hand. Although at first, it may seem like an issue that does not affect humans, we are indirectly being harmed. What was striking to me was how different organisms react to these pieces of microplastics. I did some more research as to how specifically this type of pollution is harming our aquatic population. There have obviously been many positive correlations to the fish die-offs and microplastics pollution, however, upon extensive research there is a lack in controlled experiences to prove this connection. A study was conducted on lugworms. Sand with a mixture of this specific pollution was put in vicinity with these worms. It was observed that there was a major effect on these organisms. Not only were these pollutants found in the gut tissue, additive chemicals were also causing a destructive consequence in their bodies. Eventually, the health of this population diminished and they were not able to reproduce. This hurts the overall biodiversity of a community. If we witness this type of harmful effects on a larger scale, our aquatic communities will suffer greatly. Therefore, I believe it’s important to voice our concerns and fight for more rules and regulations to prevent this microplastics pollution. It does affect humans and we need to take precautionary steps to conserve the world around us.

    Browne, M., Niven, S., Galloway, T., Rowland, S., & Thompson, R. (2013). Microplastic Moves Pollutants and Additives to Worms, Reducing Functions Linked to Health and Biodiversity. Current Biology, 23(23), 2388-2392. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.10.012

  13. Richard Wenning

    The presence of microplastics in the aquatic environment is an issue of emerging concern. To date, there is considerable lack of knowledge about the distribution of microplastics in different terrestrial and aquatic environmental compartments. There is also considerable uncertainty about the potential for biological exposure and toxicity due, in part, to debate about the ultimate fate of this material.

    The Editors of Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management (IEAM) invite experts engaged in the field of microplastic research to submit an invited commentary describing the status of research and state-­‐of-­‐knowledge regarding the significance to human health, aquatic and terrestrial biota, and ecosystems of plastics in waste water, solid waste, and refuse; the fate of microplastics in the environment; and known or suspected ecological consequences. This collection of invited commentaries is intended to inform our current understanding of fate and effects in aquatic and terrestrial environments, and to provide a primer on current scientific knowledge and environmental management actions.

    Invited commentaries are timely, short and focused peer-­‐reviewed papers intended to disseminate new information; discuss significant matters of policy and scientific perspective, including “personal” commentary; briefly summarize the state of science; and report on challenges relevant to future scientific, management, and regulatory considerations.
    The deadline for submitting a commentary is extended to 31 December 2016. Authors are encouraged to submit manuscripts not exceeding 10 pages (single-­‐sided, double-­‐spaced) and containing not more than 2 tables and 2 figures. Author instructions are available on the Internet at Authors may include supplemental material with their manuscript without restrictions.


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