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Study finds culprit behind sudden deaths of marine embryos: 'We need urgent action'

"If we reach these extreme levels of plastic pollution at our coasts … many species may become unable to reproduce."

"If we reach these extreme levels of plastic pollution at our coasts ... many species may become unable to reproduce."

Photo Credit: iStock

A new study raises concerns that plastic waste in oceans is killing marine embryos.

What happened?

The paper, published in Chemosphere, says that 10 species representing varied kinds of marine life were affected by plastics leaching from pellets. This indicated that organisms might not develop healthy offspring if mass amounts of plastic are present, according to Newsweek.

The authors acknowledged that they exposed the invertebrates, including molluscs, annelids, arthropods, and others, to unusually high concentrations of plastic pellet leachates but said such conditions weren't impossible in the environment. Plastic pellets, or nurdles, are "the building blocks for plastic products," per the study.

Lead author Eva Jimenez-Guri said in a statement that a December spill of PVC pellets off the coast of Portugal was one example, Newsweek reported.

Jimenez-Guri also cited polluted rivers and beaches near petrochemical plants and said, "If we reach these extreme levels of plastic pollution at our coasts — which happens in isolated cases but is thankfully uncommon at present — many species may become unable to reproduce, with massive impacts for marine life, the wider environment and people."

Why is this concerning?

In the study, the embryos reacted differently to the treatments, though all were affected. Some even showed signs of distress with low levels of contaminants. They failed to make shells and notochords, form bilateral features, and even stopped developing during cell division, per Newsweek.

"If you have extreme pollution at a time when these species are reproducing, then you don't have the next generation of those species," Jimenez-Guri stated.

Plastic toxicity in marine animals is worrisome because shellfish and other sea life are part of the food chain, and the plastic and any attached toxins can accumulate in animal fat and tissue, harming other creatures, including humans, even if they haven't directly ingested the pollutants — though with so much plastic pollution in the environment, it's getting harder to imagine anything is untainted.

These microplastics have been linked to cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and reproductive problems, among other health issues, though there is still uncertainty about the exact risks.

What can be done?

"We need urgent action to reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean," Jimenez-Guri said.

Some people — including scientists, entrepreneurs, and ordinary folks — are heeding the call.

Hong Kong startup Clearbot has developed self-driving electric boats to pluck trash from water, while a "vegan spider silk" could help replace some single-use plastics. 

As individuals, we can cut back on consuming products that come with unnecessary plastic packaging and make choices such as reusing a metal water bottle instead of buying plastic ones.

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