Environment Exposure to Microplastics and Affiliated Toxic Chemicals

A guest post by Mai Lei

The following post is one of a series previewing the research that will be presented at the SETAC North America 29th Annual Meeting in Sacramento, California (4–8 November 2018).

Can you imagine our beautiful planet becoming a “plastic planet”? In the BBC documentary film Blue Planet II, members of the producing team noted that plastic waste is ubiquitously floating in the sea, including fishing lines, plastic packages, and plastic bottles. Marine organisms can be trapped by plastic waste that is everywhere in the oceans, even in the deepest and most remote parts. So it is essential to carry out intensive studies of plastic waste. Large plastics can either be physically or chemically broken into fragments after having been in the water a long time, traveling long distances. Such fragments, coupled with ones that were released into seas as fine plastic particles (smaller than 5 mm), are collectively called microplastics.


Surface water trawling for floating microplastic collection on the Pearl River estuary in China.  Inset pictures are pieces of microplastic (fragments, pellets, and lines) from the trawl.  Credit: Lei Mai.

Microplastics were brought to the world’s attention by Captain Charles Moore.  While traveling the Pacific Ocean, he found lots of plastic particles floating on the sea surface and collected these plastics with a net. The term “microplastics” became well known in 2004. Microplastics are known to distribute all over the environment. In addition, microplastics are “sticky”, in that many poorly water soluble chemical contaminants such as DDT can easily attach to them from the surrounding environment. This is worrisome, because the concentration of such chemicals that can be carried by microplastics is several orders of magnitude higher than that in the water.

After microplastics enter the marine environment, aquatic organisms can ingest them by accident. Not only does this present a choking hazard, but microplastics can and do fill up the digestive tracts of  marine animals,  causing them to starve to death.  In addition, any toxic chemicals associated with these plastics can accumulate in the body of these organisms, which has been shown to be the case in field studies. Once ingested, those toxic chemicals may be released from the microplastic into the organism’s body through the creature’s digestive tract.  This represents another potential risk of microplastics to aquatic organisms in the sea.

microplastics flowchart

Due to their strong sorption capability,  organic pollutants from the surrounding environment can stick to microplastics.  These plastics can then be eaten by aquatic organisms and exert ecological effects, either from the plastic particle, the pollutants stuck to them, or both.

At present, much of the discussion and scientific work on microplastics have involved figuring out how to collect and measure the plastics themselves, as well as evaluating exposure levels and potential ecological risks. Some work is also being done to determine secondary effects, such as that of chemicals associated with microplastics.  A session at the SETAC North America Annual Meeting entitled “Environment Exposure to Microplastics and Affiliated Toxic Chemicals” will discuss these issues. This session will cover all topics related to microplastics, but will in particular emphasize recent studies on the occurrence, fate and effects of microplastics and affiliated toxic chemicals in the environment.  In addition, current research will be presented on the development of novel technologies for qualitative and quantitative analyses of microplastics and affiliated chemicals in field samples.


Session Information: Environment Exposure to Microplastics and Affiliated Toxic Chemical

Wednesday, 7 November 2018 | 8:00 AM–11:15 AM | Hall E

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