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World Environment Day 2018: Nuclear Techniques Reveal How Microplastics Pollute our Oceans

5 June 2018
While the visible impact of large plastic debris on marine environments has been well documented, the potential harm caused by microplastics is much less clear. Nuclear and isotopic techniques can provide valuable information on their impact and the risk to marine organisms and, ultimately, humans. This information can be used by governments as input into making policy decisions. 

The small coral nubbin on this photo is part of the marine plastics experimental work at the IAEA Environment Laboratories in Monaco.Due to their small size, some plastic fragments can be mistaken for plankton and may be inadvertently consumed by marine animals, such as mussels, shrimp and fish. This photo depicts a brine shrimp, also known as <em>Artemia</em>, after having consumed microplastic particles (in green). Plastic particles, when eaten by fish and other animals, can enter their internal organs and potentially interfere with natural processes by, for example, giving them a false sense of being full.  More research is planned to determine what the long-term effect of this would be. Many marine organisms such as these seabream can accumulate microplastic particles in their flesh. If people eat seafood which contains plastics, we could in turn consume these plastic fragments, too. Determining the health risks associated with this process of bioaccumulation is an important aspect of the IAEA Environment Laboratories’ work in this area.In water, pollutants have a tendency to be attracted to or attach onto the surface of marine plastic particles. By this mechanism, floating marine plastics can collect a cocktail of contaminants whose destiny in the ocean and through the food chain is then tied to that of the plastics. This photo shows a coral nubbin which can mistakenly ingest microplastic fragments.Researchers at the IAEA Environment Laboratories model realistic scenarios to examine to what extent microplastics in the environment attach pollutants and how they could act as an additional vector for the transfer of such contaminants to marine organisms and eventually to humans. Pollutants which can attach to plastics include persistent organic pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and flame retardants as well as some trace metals such as mercury and lead. Nuclear and isotopic techniques such as radiotracers enable researchers to monitor and trace how plastics and associated contaminants are taken up by organisms, including mussels pictured here. This information can be used by governments to gain new knowledge and to reinforce and/or adapt seafood safety programmes accordingly.
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Photos: Francois Oberhaensli, Hugo Jacob<br />
Text: Sarah Jones-Couture
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Happy <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/WorldEnvironmentDay?src=hash">#WorldEnvironmentDay</a>!  Check out other ways that nuclear technology helps protect the environment at an IAEA <a href="https://goo.gl/78awk5">conference</a> in November.
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<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Atoms4Life?src=hash">#Atoms4Life</a>

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