If You Eat Seafood, You’re Eating Thousands of Pieces of Plastic

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By Mark Friedman,   Marine Biology Educator for the Los Angeles Maritime Institute in San Pedro

Researchers announced this past January that regular seafood eaters could be ingesting up to 11,000 microplastic particles a year. According to the scientists, their results showed that people in Europe currently consume up to 11,000 microparticles a year and that 99 percent of them pass through the body, but the remaining 1 percent, which equates to about 60 particles, is absorbed into the body’s tissues and will accumulate over time.

A Pacific Rainbow Runner loaded with plastics. Photo credit: Markus Eriksen

A new collaborative effort between high school students in Los Angeles and Wakasa High School in Japan have been working to add to the documented research.

This school-to-school collaboration began in January with students in each country selecting particular waterways that include harbors, oceans and beaches to research the quantity and types of microplastics existing, which are known to be detrimental to Marine and human life.

In the ocean, plastic acts like a sponge picking up toxins and chemicals along the way. Analysis of microplastics in environmental samples has become more common.

Annually, about 8.8 million tons of plastic gets dumped into the ocean, where it threatens the very existence of marine life.

About 9 million tons of plastic makes its way into the world’s oceans and come from a diverse range of sources, including most clothing made from synthetic materials. Clothing made from synthetic fibers are cheap to produce and easy to maintain. But whenever they are washed in the laundry, these materials shed little plastic fibers. It is estimated that 1,900 plastic microfibers are released every time synthetic clothing is washed in the laundry.

These microplastics are ingested by marine organisms such as shellfish and other fish we commonly eat.  Recent studies have found up to 84 pieces of plastics in individual fish. In addition, the sun’s ultraviolet rays break down the plastic polymers into chemicals that disrupt human hormonal systems, especially those of adolescents and pregnant women.

Increasing evidence described in scientific articles, points to the negative impact of these plastics on marine organisms and humans.  One such chemical component of plastics, described by Physicians for Social Responsibility, is Bisphenol-A (BPA).

BPA is used in polycarbonate (hard) plastic products like water bottles, medical equipment, toys, consumer electronics, household appliances, and automobiles. Epoxy resins containing BPA are used as liners for many food and beverage cans as wells as thermal cash register receipts.

Japanese Marine biology teacher Yasuyuki Kosaka, initiated this collaboration with the Animo high school Marine biology club and this author and club mentor.  Kosaka came to the recent National Science Teachers Association convention in Los Angeles to present students’ research data at several workshops.

Using standard scientific method, Japanese students were able to flush microplastics particles from the stomachs of oysters from the Sea of Japan– a supply seafood supply source (aquaculture and fishing), that supplies the city of Kyoto.

The Los Angeles Microplastics Team from the Animo school collected water and sand samples from Alamitos Bay, and beaches at Dockweiler, Cabrillo and Redondo Beach and found tens of thousands of plastic nodules, macro and micro plastic debris and substantial amount of microplastics and filaments.

The Microplastics Team captain, Diana Cervantes said she took with her valuable experiences from the collaboration. “I have learned to be a better communicator and team player,” Cervantes said. “Thanks to this overseas collaboration I’ve also learned how to communicate with different people and how to properly get my messages across.”

Team-mate, Jessica Gonzalez, had a similar experience. “We realized that there is little awareness in our community on plastic pollution,” Gonzales said. “We collected samples of microplastics at nearby beaches to prove that microplastic pollution is a problem that directly affects marine organisms and humans. That initial passion to create awareness allowed us to present our research at science fairs to spark individuals from our community to make changes in their lives that will end the growth of microplastic pollution.”

Mikinori Matsui from Japan’s Wakasa HS says: Through study of microplastics I learned not only the seriousness of plastic pollution but also the importance of cooperation. We must collaborate with other countries’ people to solve this global problem. Now we collaborate with Los Angeles students. Our research has become very exciting. We want to continue to solutions to this problem with them.

The students have been presenting their research at local, regional and international science fairs while organizing to have their prescriptions for solving the microplastics problem spread far and wide.

Among the solutions they put forward:

  • Reduce food packaging
  • Recycle existing plastic
  • Adopt paper, bamboo and cornstarch as a biodegradable substitute for plastic
  • Make corporations pay for the clean-up costs of their businesses
  • Advocate for more stringent environmental regulations while encouraging innovation and job creation

The Microplastics Team is working to organize other environmental club students and allies throughout the school district to join the fight against plastic pollution. The students have teamed up with the LA Maritime Institute, to conduct research off the tall ships.

On June 17, July 22 and August 12, the Microplastics Team will be leading tall ship passengers on a hands-on research and data collection expedition thanks to a grant from the Coastal Commission which targeted the the often-overlooked Spanish speaking community in environmental education.

The team is also collaborating with nonprofit organizations such as: Algalita, Plastic Ocean, Heal the Bay, 5Gyres, Cabrillo Aquarium, Sea-Lab, Aquarium of the Pacific, AltaSea and others.

Mark Friedman is mentor to the Microplastics Team. Teachers and student environmental clubs interested in collaborating on Microplastic research and educational action campaigns  should contact him at: Marklewisfriedman@gmail.com