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Researchers make concerning discovery after analyzing walrus tissue: 'It's a reflection of the plastic age we live in'

"It's ubiquitous."

"It's ubiquitous."

Photo Credit: iStock

A study of walrus tissue showed the mammals are consuming significant quantities of microplastics, even in the remote waters off the coast of America's 49th state.

What's happening?

The research further cemented "the widespread presence of microplastics in the world's natural environment," the Alaska Beacon reported in February.

University of Alaska Fairbanks student Tony Blade studied 15 tissue samples from five walruses that were harvested by Indigenous subsistence hunters in Gambell, Savoonga, and Wainwright. The first two are Siberian Yup'ik villages on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, and the latter is a mainland Inupiat village about 570 miles to the northeast, on the Chukchi Sea.

Microplastics are fragments of the petroleum-based material that are smaller than 5 millimeters. Each sampled piece of walrus muscle, fat, and liver contained microplastics, and Blade counted 73 microplastic fragments in all.

In four of the animals, the particles were most prevalent in the muscle, while the other creature had more pieces in its blubber. Most of the microplastics were clear fibers, but there was also a high concentration of black fibers, the Beacon's Yereth Rosen wrote.

Why is microplastic contamination in animals important?

Pacific walruses are a vital cultural resource for Alaska Natives, and other invaluable wildlife are suffering similar toxicity. One study showed critically endangered giant tortoises from the Galápagos Islands have ingested microplastics. The pollutants have been found in human placentas and testes as well.

"They're digging through ocean sediment," Blade said of walruses, per the Beacon. "And prior studies have shown that microplastics in the Bering Strait region are settling into the sediments of that area, as well as being taken up by organisms like mussels, crustaceans, invertebrates that walruses are eating directly.

"It's a reflection of the plastic age we live in. It's ubiquitous," Blade added. 

The presence of microplastics in parts of the body besides stomachs and digestive tracts is called translocation, and it begs the question: How does it happen? Blade, who with marine biology professor Lara Horstmann expanded the research to another study of 20 walruses, told the Beacon that the answer is unknown, just like microplastics' effects on animals.

What's being done about microplastics?

Evidence is mounting that microplastics are dangerous and could contribute to cancer, dementia, and other alarming health issues.

Some have called for a global agreement to cut plastic production by at least 12% or more each year. A plastics treaty has yet to be signed, but 175 countries have agreed to develop a binding agreement by the end of this year. According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, this type of treaty to slash plastics manufacturing has "overwhelming public support." 

You can reduce your exposure to microplastics by not buying or drinking from plastic water bottles and using glass containers to heat food and store hot food. Also, you can vote for political candidates who want to help heal Earth and its wildlife.

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