Plasticosis: New disease caused by plastic found in seabirds

It may affect human beings one day.
Nergis Firtina
Seagull walking around with plastic glass.
Seagull walking around with plastic glass.

Robert Pleško/iStock 

One of the most prominent problems nowadays, environmental pollution affects all living beings' lives. Scientists have recently discovered a new disease called "plasticosis", which effects seabirds.

Plasticosis is brought on by tiny bits of plastic that irritate the digestive tract, not by viruses or bacteria. Scientists explain that persistent inflammation results in tissues becoming scarred and malformed, impacting growth, digestion, and survival.

"While these birds can look healthy on the outside, they're not doing well on the inside," said Dr. Alex Bond, who co-authored the study and is the Principal Curator and Curator in Charge of Birds at the Museum.

"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," Bond added.

It could be hazardous for humans one day

Even though plasticosis has only been identified in one species to date, the extent of plastic pollution suggests it may be considerably more common. It might even be affecting people's health.

Plasticosis: New disease caused by plastic found in seabirds
Plasticosis causes significant changes in the stomachs of birds suffering from it.

Published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, the study reveals that plasticosis affects the physical structure of the proventriculus. As plastic exposure increases, the tissue becomes gradually more swollen until it begins to break down. When a bodily part is continually inflamed, there is an excessive amount of scarring that inhibits the lesion from healing naturally, which results in several disorders.

"The tubular glands, which secrete digestive compounds, are perhaps the best example of the impact of plasticosis," Bond said. "When plastic is consumed, these glands get gradually more stunted until they eventually lose their tissue structure entirely at the highest levels of exposure."

The loss of these glands may make the birds more susceptible to illness and parasites and impair their ability to absorb some vitamins. The stomach may become stiffer and less flexible due to the disease, which reduces how well it can digest food.

This can be especially detrimental to young birds and chicks because their stomachs can't accommodate as much food. According to some studies, up to 90 percent of young birds are fed at least some plastic by their parents.

In extreme cases, this might result in the chicks starving to death because their intestines get overstuffed with plastic that they cannot digest.

Study abstract:

As biota are increasingly exposed to plastic pollution, there is a need to closely examine the sub-lethal ‘hidden’ impacts of plastic ingestion. This emerging field of study has been limited to model species in controlled laboratory settings, with little data available for wild, free-living organisms. Highly impacted by plastic ingestion, Flesh-footed Shearwaters (Ardenna carneipes) are thus an apt species to examine these impacts in an environmentally relevant manner. A Masson’s Trichrome stain was used to document any evidence of plastic-induced fibrosis, using collagen as a marker for scar tissue formation in the proventriculus (stomach) of 30 Flesh-footed Shearwater fledglings from Lord Howe Island, Australia. Plastic presence was highly associated with widespread scar tissue formation and extensive changes to, and even loss of, tissue structure within the mucosa and submucosa. Additionally, despite naturally occurring indigestible items, such as pumice, also being found in the gastrointestinal tract, this did not cause similar scarring. This highlights the unique pathological properties of plastics and raises concerns for other species impacted by plastic ingestion. Further, the extent and severity of fibrosis documented in this study gives support for a novel, plastic-induced fibrotic disease, which we define as ‘Plasticosis,’.

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