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article imageEssential Science: Major build up of microplastics on sea floor

By Tim Sandle     May 11, 2020 in Science
The extent of microplastic pollution of the oceans has been revealed, confounding earlier predictions, with a new assessment of the levels of the pollutants on marine seabeds – with far higher levels than previous assessments have shown.
British researchers have shown the highest yet-recorded levels of microplastics on the seafloor. The new count reveals 1.9 million pieces of the pollutant in a thin layer covering only one square meter.
Microplastics
Microplastics are formed through the breakdown of larger plastics, which have been discarded into the environment. Over time plastics are subject to weathering, like wind abrasion or exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight.
Krill are capable of digesting microplastics before excreting them back into the environment in an e...
Krill are capable of digesting microplastics before excreting them back into the environment in an even smaller form
ROB KING, AUSTRALIAN ANTARCTIC DIVISION/AFP
The significance of microplastics in relation to human health arises from the various toxic and carcinogenic chemicals that are introduced into the processes used to manufacture the plastics and what they carry. It also stands that some microplastics serve as vector for pathogens.
Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge  whe...
Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore.
Susan White / US Fish and Wildlife Service (CC BY 2.0)
Microplastics and the marine environment
Today plastic is the most prevalent type of marine debris found in our ocean and Great Lakes. Researchers are concerned about the extent of the pollution and the impact upon marine life, as well as the risks of microplastics entering the food chain and thus presenting a risk to human health.
Several studies have revealed how microplastics damage aquatic creatures, plus turtles and birds. In particularly, these plastic fragments can block digestive tracts and alter feeding behavior. In other cases, when sea birds end up with their stomachs stuffed with plastic, some species starve and die.
Bunaken National Marine Park  Manado  Indonesia.
Bunaken National Marine Park, Manado, Indonesia.
Sakurai Midori (CC BY-SA 3.0)
New study
The research, which was led by the University of Manchester (U.K.) and where the Tyrrhenian Sea (part of the Mediterranean Sea off the western coast of Italy) was studied, focused on the phenomenon of deep-sea currents. These currents function act as types of aquatic conveyor belts, moving tiny plastic particles and fibers across the seafloor.
The Mediterranean Sea from Hyères. The sea is connected to the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by the Med...
The Mediterranean Sea from Hyères. The sea is connected to the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by the Mediterranean region and almost completely enclosed by land.
The effect of the powerful, and very turbulent currents is to concentrate microplastics within large sediment accumulations (or 'microplastic hotspots'). This was revealed using flume experiments, where specialist tanks where turbid water flow can be controlled are used. These studies reveal how turbidity currents transport microplastics, and their role in differential burial of microplastic fragments and fibers.
The majority of the plastics recovered in relation to the new study were found to be formed of fibers from textiles and clothing, which had been passed through wastewater systems. This was confirmed using infra-red spectroscopy.
According to principal scientist, Dr Ian Kane: "Almost everybody has heard of the infamous ocean 'garbage patches' of floating plastic, but we were shocked at the high concentrations of microplastics we found in the deep-seafloor.”
Plastic pollution ends up in tap water  whose health risks are unknown  say scientists
Plastic pollution ends up in tap water, whose health risks are unknown, say scientists
JOHN WESSELS, AFP/File
The typical numbers of microplastic particles, at close to 2 million per square meter, was confirmed through direct microscopic counting.
Research paper
The new study into microplastics has been published in the journal Science. The research paper is tilted “Seafloor Microplastic Hotspots Controlled by Deep-Sea Circulation.”
Essential Science
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important science subject.
This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV  the virus th...
This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) (CC BY 2.0)
Last week the topic was the coronavirus. Here, researchers have found that two types of cells found in the nose are a mechanism that the SARS-CoV-2 virus harnesses as a mechanism to enter the body and trigger an infection.
The week before we looked at electronic skin devices, including a new developed that is powered by the sweat of the wearer. Such a device can provide accurate readings relating to heart rate and blood sugar levels, heralding a leap forward in wearable devices.
More about microplas, Plastics, Plastic pollution, Wildlife, Pollution
 
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