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Toxic microbeads in UK fish

Microbeads in cosmetics
Microbeads in cosmetics

Researchers have discovered an alarming build-up of toxic plastic microbeads in fish and other marine life in the English Channel and waters around the UK.

The team from the School of Marine Science and Engineering, at Plymouth University found widespread contamination of cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish by microbeads, which it is believed the fish are feeding on mixed in among plankton.

Microbeads found in several household products
Microbeads found in several household products

Microbeads are very small plastic particles that are usually smaller than two millimeters. They contain polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethlyl methacrylate (PMMA) or nylon.

Microbeads are added to a variety of home use products, primarily in cosmetics like face wash, and an extensive list of other products like toothpaste and abrasive cleaners. They are designed to produce a feel good factor when applied to the face and body.

However, microbeads collect pesticide residues and industrial chemicals that jeopardise human health, including pesticides like DDT,  phthalates and fire retardants.

Research by Australia’s RMIT University and China’s Hainan University showed that up to 12.5 per cent of the chemical pollutants on microbeads passed into the fish that eat them.

Eighty-three per cent of scampi, as well as in tuna, mullet, mussels and oysters caught by UK fishermen contained plastic fragments. It is thought the fish – many of which reach the human food chain – are feeding on plastics mixed in among plankton.

According to Greenpeace, an estimated eight million tons of plastic enters our ocean every year, and whether it is in the form of microbeads or throwaway plastic packaging, the science shows us that it’s a toxic time-bomb. The analysis by Greenpeace also showed that:

  • 36.5 per cent of fish caught by trawler in the English Channel, including cod, haddock and mackerel, contained synthetic polymers;
  • 83 per cent of Norway lobsters – often sold as scampi in Britain – contained microplastic debris;
  • 40 per cent of the plastics found in North Sea and Baltic fish were polyethylenes, which are used in microbeads;
  • A Portuguese study found microplastics in 20 per cent of 263 commercially-caught fish;
  • Analysis of 121 fish caught in the Mediterranean, including tuna and swordfish, found plastic debris in 18 per cent;
  • A field study collecting fish in the North Pacific found 35 per cent contained plastic fragments.

Although manufacturers have promised to remove the plastics from products by 2020, currently trillions of microbeads are being washed into the sewers and seas every year. As many as 100,000 can be flushed down the plughole after a single shower.

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