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Researchers make concerning discovery inside majority of stranded marine mammals after examination: 'This just underscores … the scale of this problem'

"This is an extra burden on top of everything else they face."

"This is an extra burden on top of everything else they face."

Photo Credit: iStock

A study from Duke University found that two-thirds of marine mammals have microplastic particles in their fats and lungs, raising concerns for their health and survival.

What's happening?

Researchers examined 12 marine mammal species, including whales, dolphins, and a bearded seal, using 32 sample animals from Alaska, California, and North Carolina. With each animal, they sampled fats from several locations in the body as well as the lungs; they found that nearly 70% of all samples contained microplastics.

The most common plastic particles were polyester fibers and polyethylene, which are commonly found in laundry machines and plastic beverage containers

"For me, this just underscores the ubiquity of ocean plastics and the scale of this problem," graduate student researcher Greg Merrill Jr. said, according to Phys.org. "Some of these samples date back to 2001. Like, this has been happening for at least 20 years."

Why is this concerning?

The risk for both animals and people is significant. For people, ingesting these marine mammals as food — or even consuming the same prey they eat — could pose a health threat

Exposure to plastic in humans has been linked to lung issues, birth defects, cancer, hormone disruption, and more. Plastic is made with over 16,000 chemicals, of which at least 4,200 are "chemicals of concern," per the Geneva Environment Network.

For marine animals, not only do chemicals pose a threat, but ingested plastic pieces are also physically hazardous, risking tissue tearing or abrasion. For other animals that unknowingly consume plastic, it's common for pieces to get stuck in their digestive tracts, starving them; smaller creatures often become trapped inside debris and suffocate.

And with one study finding that blue whales may consume as much as 95 pounds of plastic per day, the problem is dire.

"This is an extra burden on top of everything else they face: climate change, pollution, noise, and now they're not only ingesting plastic and contending with the big pieces in their stomachs, they're also being internalized," Merrill lamented. "Some proportion of their mass is now plastic."

What's being done about marine microplastics?

Scientists are scrambling for ways to reverse the prevalence of microplastics, from innovating plant-based filtration methods to using magnetic adsorbents, combating toxicity with probiotics, and planting trees to absorb airborne microplastics.

It's also worth limiting plastic usage and demand to prevent the generation of even more microplastics. From switching to reusable water bottles and tote bags to using plastic-free beauty and cleaning products, there are many ways to cut back plastic purchases and help keep oceans as plastic-free as possible.

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