We knew it was bad. But a new study of plastic in the Atlantic Ocean reveals the pollution problem is ten times worse than scientists suspected.

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The study, just published in Nature Communications, uses data collected in fall 2016. Scientists from the U.K.’s National Oceanography Centre sampled seawater from 12 Atlantic locations, from Britain to the Falklands. Samples include large amounts of water from three different depths within the ocean’s top 200 meters. Using spectroscopic imaging, researchers calculated the water’s quantity of polystyrene, polyethylene and polypropylene microparticles. These three microparticle types represent the world’s most common plastics and account for approximately half of global plastic waste.

Related: Record high amount of microplastic found on seafloors

Scientists’ calculations suggest that the Atlantic contains about 200 million tons of these three plastics. Previous estimates put the figure at between 17 and 47 million tons, the total amount likely released into the Atlantic Ocean between 1950 and 2015.

“Our key finding is that there is an awful lot of very, very small microplastic particles in the upper Atlantic ocean, much higher than the previous estimate. The amount of plastic has been massively underestimated,” said Katsiaryna Pabortsava, lead author of the study.

Microplastics threaten both human health and marine life. Scientists have found microplastics in small and large animals alike, from the gooseneck barnacle to humpbacked whales. Even humans now ingest microplastics in water, air and some foods. “We definitely know we’re exposed, there’s no doubt,” said Chelsea Rochman, an ecologist at the University of Toronto in Canada. “We drink it, we breathe it, we eat it.” The problem is new enough that scientific health assessments are only just beginning.

The study’s authors hope their findings will encourage policymakers’ to act before it’s too late — if it isn’t already. “Society is very concerned about plastic, for ocean health and human health,” Pabortsava said. “We need to answer fundamental questions about the effects of this plastic, and if it harms ocean health. The effects might be serious, but might take a while to kick in at sub-lethal levels.”

+ Nature Communications

Via The Guardian

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