Everyone loves fish and chips, right? Hot and battery, the vinegar fumes gently scorching your eyeballs. Or maybe you’re more of a sushi person, riding the Yo Sushi conveyor belts with raw abandon. Or perhaps you’re more of a shellfish type, happiest scooping mussels from a garlicky bucket or ripping the exoskeleton off some hapless marine insect.
Whatever your inclination, you’re not alone in your fish love. The average person eats around 17kg of fish each year – that’s equivalent to consuming a 4-year-old human child, and we’ve all done that. Today we’re sliding twice as much fish down our oily gullets as we were in the 1960s. Kudos everyone.
Fish is a great source of protein so we should all be extremely chuffed with ourselves. It’s also a fabulous source of flame retardants, which is excellent news if you’re a sofa.
A new study reveals that plastic in the ocean is breaking down into microscopic particles which are harmful enough in themselves, but which also act like tiny lifeboats for grisly toxins from industrial byproducts like PBDE (the aforementioned flame retardant) and PCB (a coolant). The toxins clamber aboard and drift aimlessly, like Robert Redford in All is Lost, until devoured by marine life, and voila – it’s in the food chain.
Pollutants become more concentrated the further you move up the food chain. The tiddlers ingest the plastic and are in turn consumed in large numbers by their predators. These predators are then consumed by a higher level predator (it’s the circle of life, haven’t you seen The Lion King?) and so on, right up to the herb encrusted tuna that’s steaming fragrantly on your plate. I’m afraid someone’s spiked supper.
Many plastics contain chemicals already known to affect human and animal health, mainly affecting the endocrine system. Some contain toxic monomers, which have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems, but the actual role of plastic waste in these conditions is uncertain and there currently isn’t enough evidence to start splashing Daily Mail style hysteria across the globe. But scarily, even less is known about the effects of the toxic hitchhikers.
Some bonkers cosmetic products come with ready-made teeny tiny plastic particles. Exfoliants, shower gels and even some toothpastes contain micro-beads so small they are designed to go down the plughole and straight out to sea. Many companies such as Unilever have pledged to exorcise the evil beads, but not until 2015, so the clever people at Beat the Microbead have stepped in and compiled a nifty list of products for you to avoid until they’re happily bead-free.
But all this is just the tip of the plasberg. Plastic production has increased 560 fold in just over 60 years and if we continue at this rate we’ll be dumping 220 million tons of the stuff every year by 2025. It doesn’t take a scientist to work out that this can’t be good news for man nor beast.
And it hangs around for so long too. In 2005 a piece of plastic found in an albatross’s stomach bore a serial number traced to a World War II seaplane shot down in 1944. It’s hard not to be a tiny bit impressed by this plucky plastic.
That is until you consider its role in the deaths of hundreds of species – fish, birds, dolphins, whales – who die of starvation, their stomachs bursting with plastic water bottles, carrier bags and the like; or those strangled, poisoned or cut up by our waste.
Something to think about the next time you gob a fish finger. I really hope I haven’t spoiled your appetite.
Rachel Salvidge is a freelance journalist specialising in the environment, with a background in book publishing. Find out more @RachSalv.
Photo: Dan Century
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