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Dublin: 14°C Wednesday 17 August 2022

Microplastics in Irish waters 'pass up the food chain' into systems of humans and larger animals

The findings were contained in research carried out by scientists at UCC.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/Mr.anaked

MICROPLASTICS ARE STICKING to the surfaces of freshwater plants and passing up the food chain into larger animals, including humans.

The finding was contained in a new report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with research led by Professor Marcel Jansen at University College Cork (UCC).

It warns of potential repercussions for the entire food chain, including the human population, if the levels of plastic in Irish waters do not reduce.

The research found that hundreds of extremely small microplastics can stick to just a few square millimetres of the surface of freshwater plants.

Microplastics are any piece of plastic smaller than five millimetres in size, according to the Irish Microplastic Awareness and Coastal Threats.

They include plastic bottles, plastic bags and other single use plastics in the water that eventually fragment and break down into microplastics.

Fibres from synthetic fabrics like nylon and polyester also contribute to microplastics in the oceans and rivers.

The research showed that when a freshwater shellfish ingests duckweed with microplastics on it, an animal that consumes it also ingests the microplastics.

“The finding that microplastics adhere to plant surfaces is alarming,” Jansen said. “Because other creatures are feeding on these plants and ingesting the microplastics.”

There are more studies on microplastic pollution in the ocean, according to Mateos-Cárdenas. “But that doesn’t mean there’s more microplastics there,” she said.

“What happens is that any plastics goes from out cities litter into rivers. Before, people thought the rivers would transport the plastics to the oceans.”

However, it’s now known that the plastic stays in these rivers and breaks down over time.

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“Once plastics are ingested and fragmented into microscopic pieces there is currently nothing that can be done to catch these pieces of plastics,” said Jansen.

“Therefore, the only way to stop the pollution of our freshwater environment is to remove the larger plastics before they disintegrate.”

After an animal ingests these microplastics, they are broken down into even small nanoplatsics, which are small enough to enter living cells.

“That’s where they can cause a lot of damage,” said Mateos-Cárdenas. “These animals can basically produce nanoplastics which can then make the problem even worse.”

Jansen called on society to prevent plastic pollution of the environment by reusing and recycling products more often.

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