Microplastics in seafood: a human health risk or just marine debris?

“Improving wastewater and solid waste collection and management presents the most urgent short-term solution to reducing plastic inputs, especially in developing economies.”

A 179-page report on plastic marine debris was released in time for the United Nations Environment Assembly. The report suggests “marine plastic litter is a global concern”.

"Even if you are remote, you are not safe from it." Plastic litters this beach.
“Even if you are remote, you are not safe from it.”
Plastic litters this beach.

Marine plastics are distributed throughout the ocean, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. This is due to the durability of plastics, the global nature of potential sources and the ease to which surface currents will carry floating plastics. The surface circulation is well known and is amenable to modelling. There are several persistent features such as the five sub-tropical gyres in the Indian Ocean, North and South Atlantic, and North and South Pacific. These are areas with relatively high concentrations of floating microplastics. However, higher abundances of plastics (especially macroplastics) are also found in coastal waters, particularly in regions with: high coastal populations with inadequate waste collection and management.

The report continues to highlight some key messages:

  • Plastics marked as ‘biodegradable’ do not degrade rapidly in the ocean.
  • There is a moral argument that we should not allow the ocean to become further polluted with plastic waste, and that marine littering should be considered a ‘common concern of humankind’.
  • ‘Leakage’ of plastics into the ocean can occur at all stages of the production-usedisposal cycle, especially due to inadequate wastewater and solid waste collection and management, but the amount of marine plastic is so far poorly quantified.
  • From the available limited evidence, it is concluded that microplastics in seafood do not currently represent a human health risk, although many uncertainties remain.

For the full report click Here

Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist at the U.N. Environment Program told The Guardian:

“A lot of plastics labelled biodegradable, like shopping bags, will only break down in temperatures of [122 degrees Fahrenheit] and that is not the ocean,” McGlade told The Guardian. “They are also not buoyant, so they’re going to sink, so they’re not going to be exposed to UV and break down.” She also added “We have detected plastics in places as far away as the Chagos Islands [in the Indian Ocean]. Even if you are remote, you are not safe from it.”

*Microplastics are small plastic particles in the environment that are generally smaller than 1 mm.

Several International Conventions and Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) have been introduced to control the release of harmful substances into the environment. These are only relevant insofar as some plastics are produced containing compounds known to have toxic properties, and most plastics have a tendency to absorb organic pollutants and hence have the potential to impart a chemical impact if ingested or otherwise brought into close contact with marine organisms or people.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) was adopted in 2001 and came into force in May 20/04/10. It was established to protect human life and the environment from chemicals that persist in the environment, bioaccumulate in humans and wildlife, have harmful effects and have the potential for long-range environmental transport. Chemicals classified as POPs under the Convention have a number of undesirable effects, including disruption of the endocrine system, carcinogenicity and damage to the central and peripheral nervous system.

*POPs (Persistent organic pollutants) are organic compounds that are resistant to environmental degradation through chemical, biological, and photolytic processes.

– Sources The Guardian,  UNEP 2016 Marine plastic debris and microplastics report –


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