University of Hull research has revealed how the microplastics we are polluting our seas with are entering the food chain and ending up on our plates.
Leading researchers have called for further study of the possible implications of humans ingesting microplastics after a University of Hull study found significant and widespread traces in mussels found in UK waters.
Microplastics and other debris were found in 100 per cent of the mussels sampled from around the UK coast, and those bought in supermarkets, by scientists from the University of Hull and Brunel University London. They collected samples from eight locations around the UK coastline as well as from eight unnamed supermarkets, representing eight different, unnamed brands.
An estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the oceans each year. Plastics are being consumed by marine organisms that mistake the waste for food. Mussels feed by filtering seawater through their bodies, ingesting particles such as microplastics and other debris.
For every 100g of mussels consumed, it is estimated that there are approximately 70 pieces of microplastic. More particles were found in the supermarket mussels which had been cooked or frozen than in the freshly caught mussels, according to the research, which was published in the Environmental Pollution Journal.
Professor Jeanette Rotchell of the University of Hull, whose research focuses on the biological effects of environmental contaminants and who led the study, says: “It is becoming increasingly evident that global contamination of the marine environment by microplastic is impacting wildlife, and that its entry into the food chain is providing a pathway for the waste that we dispose of to be returned to us through our diet.
“This study provides further evidence of this route of exposure and we now need to understand the possible implications of digesting these very small levels. Continued research will hopefully drive effective human risk assessment. Chances are that these have no implications, but nonetheless, there is not enough data out there to say there is no risk. We still need to do the studies and show that is the case. There is currently regulation on some contaminants in food; in the long term, regulatory solutions to this problem will also be needed.”
Jeanette says although microplastics have been found in samples collected, seafood is only one route of human exposure through our food as microplastics have also been found in other food sources and drinking water. Airborne plastics can also be inhaled. Dr Alan Reynolds, Deputy Director, Experimental Techniques Centre, Brunel University London, says: “‘Blue Planet’ has rightly awoken the public to the devastating effects waste plastics are having on the marine environment. This paper highlights that the problems are close to home. These same polluting microplastics are now coming back to us in the food in our supermarkets.” Jeanette says it is not just microplastics which need to come under the microscope. Of the debris found in mussels, the study showed around 50 per cent was made up of microplastics and 37 per cent of other debris including textiles such as rayon and cotton. She says: “All the conversation is about microplastics, but textiles could also be worth investigation.”