We've Given Seabirds a New Disease

'Plasticosis' is doing serious damage to digestive tracts
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 3, 2023 1:07 PM CST
We've Given Seabirds a New Disease
The flesh-footed shearwater is classed as near threatened.   (Getty Images/Imogen Warren)

Scientists who examined dozens of dead fledgling seabirds have identified a new disease caused by plastic pollution. In a study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, researchers describe "plasticosis" as a "novel, plastic-induced fibrotic disease." Researchers say the disease is caused by ingestion of small pieces of plastic, which leads to long-term inflammation and scarring in the birds' digestive tracts, the Guardian reports. Over time, this affects growth, digestion, and survival, according to researchers, who studied flesh-footed shearwaters at a breeding colony on Australia's Lord Howe Island. Most of the 30 birds examined were 80 to 90 days old.

"While these birds can look healthy on the outside, they’re not doing well on the inside," says study co-author Dr. Alex Bond at the Natural History 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." Researchers believe the young birds ingested plastic when their parents fed it to them, having mistaken plastic floating on the ocean surface for food. The researchers say no damage was detected from ingestion of "similarly abrasive natural materials, such as pumice."

The researchers say their study only involved one species, but they believe the prevalence of plastic in the environment likely means many other seabird species suffer from plasticosis. "Due to the potential impacts of plastic on the health of wildlife, and humans by extension, our results thus highlight the urgent need to continue to strengthen our knowledge of the sub-lethal impacts of this diverse pollutant," they wrote. (Read more plastic stories.)

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