Today’s Special: Grilled Salmon Laced With Plastic
Nearly 50 years ago, scientists studying the North Atlantic Ocean started noticing that tiny fragments of plastic were turning up in their plankton and seaweed samples. The microparticles, they found, absorbed toxic chemicals and were then eaten by flounder, perch, and other fish. Until recently, though, researchers thought these ingested plastics stayed in a creature’s guts and possibly its liver. Removing a fish’s entrails before serving it up appeared to eliminate the risk of eating plastic.
But recent research suggests that these tiny bits of plastic move into fish flesh. And now seafood, a recent study found, is the third-largest source of chemical-laden “microplastics” of sources analyzed so far for the average American consumer, behind bottled water and air. “Plastic is now part of our food system,” says Kieran Cox, a marine ecologist and PhD candidate at the University of Victoria in British Columbia who led the study.
Microplastics are bits of material that are smaller than 5 millimeters, the width of a pencil-top eraser. The vast majority of this debris comes from “single use” plastic products such as bottles, bottle caps, straws, and bags. The study, which was published in June in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, estimates that Americans are eating, inhaling, and drinking at least 74,000 pieces of microplastic a year. But that’s a “drastic underestimate,” Cox says, because no one has measured microplastic content in major food groups such as meat, dairy, and grains.
It’s hard to say what consuming all this plastic means for human health. We don’t yet have standardized analytical measures to assess people’s exposures, says ecotoxicologist Jane Muncke, managing director of the independent Swiss charity Food Packaging Forum, who was not involved in the University of Victoria study. Such standards, along with biomonitoring studies to measure levels of microplastics in blood and urine, are critical to enforcing regulations designed to protect our health.
More than 9 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s. Today about 40 percent is used for packaging, mostly for single-use food and beverage containers.
When marine biologists first discovered plastic particles fouling the ocean’s surface in 1972, they measured about 3,500 particles per square kilometer in the North Atlantic Ocean’s Sargasso Sea. The problem increased dramatically in the years following: In an analysis of samples taken from the same region between 1986 and 2008, reported in the journal Science, researchers found an average of 20,328 particles per square kilometer, with a peak concentration of 580,000 particles per square kilometer in 1997.