Microplastics May Harm Oysters, Our Aphrodisiac Friends

Every day, 8 trillion microbeads are being emitted into aquatic habitats in the U.S. And that's only 1 percent of the total. 5Gyres, courtesy of Oregon State University

Small bits of plastics found in cosmetics and clothing (and also produced when larger floating junk breaks down) may be harming oysters, a staple of Valentine's day fare known for their alleged aphrodisiac properties.

In a study published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , researchers found that oysters exposed to small bits of polymers called microplastics had more difficulty reproducing. Compared to oysters not exposed to the pollutants, female oysters in microplastic-riddled aquaria had 38 percent fewer eggs and males produced sperm that were 23 percent slower; overall, fecundity dropped 41 percent, and the offspring of the exposed oysters were 20 percent smaller than those of uncontaminated animals.

Microplastics are a growing marine problem, and there are currently 270,000 tons of plastic debris floating on the surface of the world's oceans. Microbeads, often used in face scrubs and other cosmetics, are a particular problem and likely to end up in the body's of filter feeders like oysters because they are so small and plentiful.

"Filter feeding species are among the most impacted by microplastics due to their mode of nutrition: filtering large volumes of water," Arnaud Huvet, an invertebrate physiologist at the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea, told the Smithsonian magazine. "We found that microplastics affect the oysters' reproduction, with consequences to the next generation.

But there's some good news: In December 2015, President Barack Obama signed a bill that forces companies to stop using microbeads in their products by 2017.