A new disease caused by plastic polluting the world’s oceans has been discovered in seabirds, UK scientists based at London’s Natural History Museum have revealed.
The birds with the disease, named plasticosis, have scarred digestive tracts from swallowing the waste material that has found its way into the sea after being dumped. It is the first recorded instance of plastic-induced fibrosis in wildlife and researchers named the disease plasticosis to make it clear that it was caused by plastic in the environment.
Plastic pollution is so prevalent that the scarring was widespread across different ages of birds, according to the study which has been published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials.
Young birds were found to have the disease and it is thought chicks were being fed the plastic pollution by parents accidentally bringing it back in food.
When birds ingest small pieces of plastic, researchers found, it inflames the digestive tract. Over time, the persistent inflammation causes tissues to become scarred and disfigured, affecting digestion, growth and survival.
Scientists Dr Alex Bond and Dr Jennifer Lavers studied flesh-footed shearwaters from Australia’s Lord Howe Island to look at the relationship between levels of ingested plastic and the proventriculus organ – the first part of a bird’s stomach.
They found that the more plastic a bird had ingested, the more scarring it had. The disease can lead to the gradual breakdown of tubular glands which can cause the birds to become more vulnerable to infection and parasites and affect their ability to digest food and absorb some vitamins.
Dr Bond, principal curator in charge of birds at the Natural History Museum, 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.’
Though the scientists studied only one species of bird in one part of the world, they believe it is likely that more species are affected and say more research is needed to find out how widespread the condition is.
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