Plastic pollution of oceans is a growing menace

Posted Feb 26, 2014 by Tim Sandle
Microbes living on floating pieces of discarded plastic are affecting the ocean ecosystem. This plastic pollution poses a significant risk to invertebrates, humans and other animals.
Compressed plastic waste collected by fishermen at a processing plant in Chiva  near Valencia in Spa...
Compressed plastic waste collected by fishermen at a processing plant in Chiva, near Valencia in Spain
Pedro Armestre, AFP
The term given to the vast amount of plastic waste in the oceans and the high number of pathogenic bacteria that are attached to the waste is the "Plastisphere." Studies have shown that the Plastisphere's inhabitants include bacteria known to cause diseases in animals and humans.
The Digital Journal reported last year that the North Atlantic Ocean has several areas streaming with plastic junk, the waste products of modern life. So extensive is plastic waste that plastic has become the main form of ocean debris, causing serious concerns about its impact on the health of ocean communities.
It is not known why so many pathogenic bacteria are attached to plastic (compared with other objects in the ocean. However, according to the American Geophysical Union, tests show that some types of harmful bacteria favor plastics more than others. Scientists are exploring if fish or other ocean animals may be helping these pathogens thrive by ingesting the plastic. That could allow bacteria to acquire additional nutrients as they pass through the guts of the fish.
One risk from this, NBC News reports, is that the nutrients offered by bacteria could also be luring fish into areas with concentrations of plastic, where the plastic then proves harmful to the fish. In terms of risks to people, aside from the pathogens, some of the microorganisms are thought to accelerate the breakdown of plastic materials into potentially hazardous chemicals.
Revealing this information could help scientists better understand how much of a potential threat these harmful bacteria pose and the role the Plastisphere plays in the larger ocean ecosystem, including its potential to alter nutrients in the water. That information could also help reduce the impact of plastic pollution in the ocean.