The last time it was mentioned on this blog, the swirling mass of plastic, now known by scientists as the “Eastern Garbage Patch,” was reported to be about the size of Texas, but growing rapidly. Now, I’m reading an article that claims it’s TWICE the size of Texas. It’s hundreds of miles long.
At the same time, all over the globe, there are signs that plastic pollution is doing more than blighting the scenery; it is also making its way into the food chain. Some of the most obvious victims are the dead seabirds that have been washing ashore in startling numbers, their bodies packed with plastic: things like bottle caps, cigarette lighters, tampon applicators, and colored scraps that, to a foraging bird, resemble baitfish. (One animal dissected by Dutch researchers contained 1,603 pieces of plastic.) And the birds aren’t alone. All sea creatures are threatened by floating plastic, from whales down to zooplankton. There’s a basic moral horror in seeing the pictures: a sea turtle with a plastic band strangling its shell into an hourglass shape; a humpback towing plastic nets that cut into its flesh and make it impossible for the animal to hunt. More than a million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals, and countless fish die in the North Pacific each year, either from mistakenly eating this junk or from being ensnared in it and drowning.
Bad enough. But Moore soon learned that the big, tentacled balls of trash were only the most visible signs of the problem; others were far less obvious, and far more evil. Dragging a fine-meshed net known as a manta trawl, he discovered minuscule pieces of plastic, some barely visible to the eye, swirling like fish food throughout the water. He and his researchers parsed, measured, and sorted their samples and arrived at the following conclusion: By weight, this swath of sea contains six times as much plastic as it does plankton.
Six times as much plastic as plankton! And don’t think humans are immune, either.
This statistic is grim—for marine animals, of course, but even more so for humans. The more invisible and ubiquitous the pollution, the more likely it will end up inside us. And there’s growing—and disturbing—proof that we’re ingesting plastic toxins constantly, and that even slight doses of these substances can severely disrupt gene activity. “Every one of us has this huge body burden,” Moore says. “You could take your serum to a lab now, and they’d find at least 100 industrial chemicals that weren’t around in 1950.” The fact that these toxins don’t cause violent and immediate reactions does not mean they’re benign: Scientists are just beginning to research the long-term ways in which the chemicals used to make plastic interact with our own biochemistry.
On land, things are equally gruesome. “Fertility rates have been declining for quite some time now, and exposure to synthetic estrogen—especially from the chemicals found in plastic products—can have an adverse effect,” says Marc Goldstein, M.D., director of the Cornell Institute for Repro-ductive Medicine. Dr. Goldstein also notes that pregnant women are particularly vulnerable: “Prenatal exposure, even in very low doses, can cause irreversible damage in an unborn baby’s reproductive organs.” And after the baby is born, he or she is hardly out of the woods. Frederick vom Saal, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia who specifically studies estrogenic chemicals in plastics, warns parents to “steer clear of polycarbonate baby bottles. They’re particularly dangerous for newborns, whose brains, immune systems, and gonads are still developing.” Dr. vom Saal’s research spurred him to throw out every polycarbonate plastic item in his house, and to stop buying plastic-wrapped food and canned goods (cans are plastic-lined) at the grocery store. “We now know that BPA causes prostate cancer in mice and rats, and abnormalities in the prostate’s stem cell, which is the cell implicated in human prostate cancer,” he says. “That’s enough to scare the hell out of me.” At Tufts University, Ana M. Soto, M.D., a professor of anatomy and cellular biology, has also found connections between these chemicals and breast cancer.
Referring to the tiny plastic particles that are now everywhere, Charles Moore says “It’s not the big trash on the beach. It’s the fact that the whole biosphere is becoming mixed with these plastic particles. What are they doing to us? We’re breathing them, the fish are eating them, they’re in our hair, they’re in our skin.”
Though marine dumping is part of the problem, escaped nurdles and other plastic litter migrate to the gyre largely from land. That polystyrene cup you saw floating in the creek, if it doesn’t get picked up and specifically taken to a landfill, will eventually be washed out to sea. Once there, it will have plenty of places to go: The North Pacific gyre is only one of five such high-pressure zones in the oceans. There are similar areas in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. Each of these gyres has its own version of the Garbage Patch, as plastic gathers in the currents. Together, these areas cover 40 percent of the sea. “That corresponds to a quarter of the earth’s surface,” Moore says. “So 25 percent of our planet is a toilet that never flushes.”
I don’t know what to say.
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