Every Dolphin, Whale and Seal in This Study Was Contaminated With Microplastics

Scientists looking for microplastics in the digestive systems of sea animals stranded off the U.K. coast discovered the material in every creature they tested, according to a study.

A team analyzed a total of 50 animals across 10 species for their research, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports. ​Microplastics were defined in the study as fragments measuring up to 5 millimeters (0.2 inches).

The samples used in the study were taken from 50 animals by members of the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme and the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme. Both projects are based in the U.K.

Of the plastics found in the sea creatures, 84 percent were synthetic fibers, which generally originate from products such as clothing and fishing nets. The remaining contaminants were what the scientists described as fragments, likely to come from food and drink packaging.

The animals that died of an infection contained marginally higher levels of microplastics than those that perished from different causes. However, it was unclear whether microplastics were a contributing factor to infections, wrote the authors, who are from the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

Brendan Godley, a professor of conservation science at the University of Exeter, told Newsweek the study "highlights the magnitude of plastic pollution. We expected to find plastics but were somewhat surprised when we found fibers in every single animal of all species."

However, he said the team were relieved that the plastics appeared to pass through the animals, as they contained 5.5 particles on average, which is considered relatively low.

In a statement, Penelope Lindeque, head of the marine plastics research group at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, said: "We don't yet know the effects of these particles on marine mammals. Their small size means they may easily be expelled, but while microplastics are unlikely to be the main threat to these species, we are still concerned by the impact of the bacteria, viruses and contaminants carried on the plastic."

Godley said the work could be expanded upon in future research, using a larger sample of animals and across a range of geographic locations.

"I am particularly concerned for filter-feeding whales," he said. Past researchhas suggested that these animals, which ingest hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water each day in order to feed off plankton, are at particular risk from ocean pollution.

The take-home message, said Godley, is that plastic appears to be so ubiquitous in the environment that all marine wildlife may be affected. "This should act as a canary in the coal mine for what we are doing to the environment on which we all depend." He said avoiding single-use plastic is "clearly a first step" to tackling the problem.

"But in time, it is likely that we will need to look very hard at all aspects of our relationship with plastics," he continued. "With regard to the fibers found in our study animals, what polymers we use in our clothes and how we wash them and minimize environmental spillage would be two questions to address. Plastics are very useful; it is our current way of managing them that is the problem."

The study is the latest to investigate the levels of tiny plastic particles present in sea animals, in the hopes of furthering our understanding of the potential harm they pose. A separate piece of research by scientists at the U.K.'s University of Plymouth found that billions of nanoparticles contaminated shellfish exposed after six hours. The research was published last year in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

common dolphin
A dolphin washed up on a beach. Frazer Hodgkins & CSIP