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Along with acidification and overfishing, plastic pollution is one of the greatest threats to the health of our ocean ecosystems. New research published in this month’s issue of Environmental Science & Technology shows the absorption of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in five of the most commonly produced plastics. By taking pellets of each material and immersing them in seawater, they found not only do the plastics absorb a large amount of contaminants, but they do so over a long period of time. At one study site they estimated that it would take 44 months for high density polyethylene to stop absorbing POPs. The concern is that marine animals all the way along the food chain eat these toxic sponges, negatively affecting the health of the entire ecosystem.

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Researchers led by Chelsea Rochman measured the levels of the POPs polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) among the five most ubiquitous plastics on the market. Over a period of a year in five sites along the San Diego Bay, the scientists recorded the amount of POPs acquired by polyethylene terephthalate (PET found in water bottles), high-density polyethylene (HDPE found in detergent bottles), polyvinyl chloride (PVC found in clear food packaging), low-density polyethylene (LDPE found in single-use plastic bags) and polypropylene (PP found in yogurt containers). The study found that objects made from polyethylene and polypropylene posed the greatest risk to marine life. PVC has long been known to be carcinogenic and dangerous on its own.

This investigation casts new concern over not just the amount of plastic entering our oceans, but how it interacts with other pollutants. Aside from from physical harm such as strangling and chocking from trash, organisms have to worry about poisoning. Yet another good reason to recycle and reduce the amount of plastic we use in our day-to-day lives.

+San Diego State University

Via Mother Jones

Images via NOAA and Wikicommons user Manuel Anastacio