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Researcher finds microplastics in digestive tracts of fish from Nile River — here's why it's concerning

The dangers of microplastics, both to our health and the planet's ecosystem, are slowly beginning to garner attention.

The dangers of microplastics, both to our health and the planet’s ecosystem, are slowly beginning to garner attention.

Photo Credit: iStock

The Nile River passes through several countries on the African continent and is the longest river in Africa at over 4,000 miles long. It's famously been known as a giver of life to the region, but that title is now becoming tainted.

 What's happening?

Researcher Dalia Saad's team sampled 30 freshly caught Nile tilapia fish from the waters near Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan. There were a total of 567 microplastic particles found, and every fish sampled had some in their digestive tract. 

A 2020 documentary titled "The Plastic Nile" highlights the plastic pollution hazard, specifically in the region.

Why is microplastic pollution concerning?

Microplastics are fragments less than 5 millimeters in size (or less than about one-fifth of an inch) and can be found in the air, water, and soil. The omnivorous feeding habits of shallow-dwelling tilapia may make them especially susceptible to ingesting plastics by mistaking them as actual food. 

Whales, on the other hand, are far bigger eaters and have been found to ingest as many as 10 million pieces of microplastics each day. Studies have even shown that humans may ingest at least 50,000 particles each year and breathe in a similar amount, per the World Economic Forum. 

These problematic particles come from a variety of sources, but one of the main culprits polluting the oceans and waterways is paint, which contains an average of 37% plastic polymers. Other key pollution sources are from cosmetics and the disintegration of larger plastic items, like bags and single-use packaging. 

What can be done about microplastic pollution?

The dangers of microplastics, both to our health and the planet's ecosystem, are slowly beginning to garner attention. In 2022, the director of the UN Environment Programme formed an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, which has adopted a resolution for legally binding action on plastic pollution, including the marine environment. The goal is to complete negotiations by the end of 2024. 

Other real-world solutions are being acted on today. Scientists at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, have developed a magnetic nano-pillared adsorbent (a solid substance used to decontaminate liquids or gas) to remove microplastics from the ocean. The process works with fragments 1,000 times smaller than wastewater treatment plants have been able to detect.

"The nano-pillar structure we've engineered to remove this pollution, which is impossible to see but very harmful to the environment, is recycled from waste and can be used multiple times," said the lead researcher of the microplastic removal project, Professor Nicky Eshtiaghi, in a university report. "This is a big win for the environment and the circular economy."

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