A study of dead marine animals found every single seal, dolphin and whale included was found to have eaten plastic.
The study was carried out by a team of marine mammal and plastic experts from the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory, who examined the digestive tracts of 50 animals from 10 species of dolphins, seals, and whales which had washed up on the shores of Britain.
The devastating results, published in Scientific Reports, showed that small pieces of plastic, less than 5 millimetres in length, were found in every animal studied.
Researchers discovered there was more plastic in the animals’ stomachs than their intestines, ‘indicating a potential site of temporary retention’.
The most common polymer type was nylon, and 84 per cent of the plastics found were synthetic fibres that can come from clothing, fishing nets, toothbrushes and other nylon products.
The remaining 16 per cent of the microplastics discovered were fragments broken down from larger pieces of plastic, with possible sources being water bottles and food packaging.
A possible correlation was noted as the number of animals that died of infectious diseases were found to have a higher number of microplastics in their system, but the researchers admitted it is not possible to draw certain conclusions about the relationship without further research.
Speaking about the findings to Phys.org, lead author Sarah Nelms called the discovery ‘shocking’.
It’s shocking—but not surprising—that every animal had ingested microplastics.
The number of particles in each animal was relatively low (average of 5.5 particles per animal), suggesting they eventually pass through the digestive system, or are regurgitated.
We don’t yet know what effects the microplastics, or the chemicals on and in them, might have on marine mammals. More research is needed to better understand the potential impacts on animal health.
Although the researchers aren’t able to draw firm conclusions about the relation between microplastics and animal health, Professor Brendan Godley from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter said it’s still worrying.
He explained to Phys.org:
We are at the very early stages of understanding this ubiquitous pollutant.
We now have a benchmark that future studies can be compared with.
Marine mammals are ideal sentinels of our impacts on the marine environment, as they are generally long lived and many feed high up in the food chain. Our findings are not good news.
It’s horrible to think the marine animals are taking in plastic because of the actions of humans; the faster we reduce the use of plastic the better.
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Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.