New disease in wild bird species caused by plastic pollution, study finds

Birds affected by plasticosis become more vulnerable to infection and parasites and struggle to properly digest food and absorb vitamins. Scientists have found a new disease in wild birds caused solely by plastic pollution. Termed plasticosis, the disease is caused by small pieces of plastic inflaming the digestive tract.

Bird seating on safety net

It is thought that seabirds eat the plastic when fishing and then accidentally feed it directly to their chicks. Over time, the persistent inflammation scars and deforms the tissue, and the birds struggle to digest food and grow properly, affecting their ability to survive. A team of scientists from Australia and Britain decided to name the new disease after seeing widespread scarring in flesh-footed shearwater birds on Australia’s Lord Howe Island.

Examples of tubular gland shapes in wild birds, from healthy, regularly shaped glands to severely impacted glands with a loss of structure. Image- University of Tasmania:PA Wire

They noticed that birds that had eaten more plastic had more scarring to the proventriculus organ — the first part of a bird’s stomach.Dr. Alex Bond of the Natural History Museum, who co-authored the study said: “While these birds can look healthy on the outside, they’re not doing well on the inside.”

“This study is the first time that stomach tissue has been investigated in this way and shows that plastic consumption can cause serious damage to these birds’ digestive system.”

Publishing their work in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, the researchers found that other inorganic items found in the birds’ guts, such as pumice stones, do not contribute to such scarring.

Characterized as a fibrotic disease, which is defined by scarring to the tissue, plasticosis can lead to the gradual breakdown of tubular glands in the proventriculus. Affected birds become more vulnerable to infection and parasites and struggle to properly digest food and absorb vitamins. While plasticosis has only been identified in one bird species, the researchers said that because of the scale of plastic pollution, it may be much more widespread.

It is estimated that there are 30 million tonnes of plastic waste in the world’s oceans, with a further 109 million tonnes in rivers that will continue to leak into the sea for decades. An OECD report published last year said production of plastic has doubled worldwide in the last 20 years, with only 9% of it being successfully recycled and 22% mismanaged and left to pollute the environment.

Meanwhile, so-called forever chemicals seem to be turning up everywhere. We wear them, clean our houses with them, and, according to a new study, perhaps even wipe ourselves with them.

The report, published this week in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, has found evidence of per- or polyfluorinated chemicals — also known as PFAS — in toilet paper. An academic team led by researchers at the University of Florida concluded that the bathroom staple might be a source of PFAS entering wastewater treatment systems.

Extensive scar tissue formation was associated with plastic exposure in seabirds.

“PFAS are ubiquitous in so many consumer products,” said Jake Thompson, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. student in environmental engineering at the University of Florida.

“I don’t want the takeaway to be that everyone has to stop using toilet paper. It’s more that it’s this issue that is pretty engrained into society, and we have to think how we can limit its uses across a wide range of products.”

For the study, researchers analyzed samples of toilet paper from four regions — Africa, North America, South and Central America, and Western Europe — between November 2021 and August 2022. They detected six types of PFAS in the toilet paper samples and said one chemical in particular, 6:2 diPAP, was especially prevalent. No one brand stood out as having higher concentrations of the chemicals, according to Thompson.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers many PFAS hazardous: They take decades to break down naturally, can contaminate drinking water sources, and tend to build up in wildlife ecosystems. Some studies have also highlighted a potential connection between PFAS and cancer and lowered fertility. The University of Florida researchers did not look into health risks, but found concentrations of 6:2 diPAP were recorded in the existing analysis of wastewater samples in six countries; based on their calculations, researchers found that toilet paper was a likely contributor to overall PFAS in sewage.

Dr. Linda Lee, an environmental chemistry professor at Purdue University, said the study’s findings should be viewed cautiously, but overall highlight the need for increased efforts to replace PFAS in everyday products: “The big take-home message is to regulators and policymakers to focus their energy on the front end of the PFAS problem.”

— PA and Bloomberg

Source: Irishexaminer

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