Email Print Share
August 30, 2023

Microplastics in Tissues

NSF-supported researchers at Duke University have found microplastics translocating into the soft tissues of whales and seals. Photo credit: Greg Merrill, Duke University Marine Lab

Credit: U.S. National Science Foundation

Every year more than 19 million tons of plastic waste makes its way into aquatic ecosystems according to the UN Environment Programme. But little is known about how tiny microplastics are impacting the world's largest animals, marine mammals. We'll explore the spread of plastics in NSF's "Discovery Files."

Nearly 2,000 garbage trucks worth of plastic ends up in the rivers, lakes, and oceans of the world every day. A new study produced by NSF-Supported researchers from the Duke University Marine lab in an international cooperation with researchers from the University of Toronto looks at how that plastic pollution is ending up translocating into the soft tissues of whales and seals.

While microplastics were previously found in the gastrointestinal tracts of marine mammals, this is the first study to find microplastics moving into other tissues.

Blubber, lung, and acoustic organ samples of 32 animals collected between the years 2000 and 2021 showed plastic particles between roughly twice and 5 times the thickness of a strand of hair in two-thirds of the samples.

The health impacts of microplastics to these marine mammals specifically remains to be determined but known effects from other studies show impaired immunity, reproductive toxicity, altered metabolism and cancer risks. Further, the pervasive plastics could pose a health risk to the people who rely on marine mammals for food as well as those who consume the same prey.

To hear more science and engineering news, including the researchers making it, subscribe to "NSF's Discovery Files" podcast.

Images and other media in the National Science Foundation Multimedia Gallery are available for use in print and electronic material by NSF employees, members of the media, university staff, teachers and the general public. All media in the gallery are intended for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial use only.

Images credited to the National Science Foundation, a federal agency, are in the public domain. The images were created by employees of the United States Government as part of their official duties or prepared by contractors as "works for hire" for NSF. You may freely use NSF-credited images and, at your discretion, credit NSF with a "Courtesy: National Science Foundation" notation.

Additional information about general usage can be found in Conditions.