Food Web Transport

Several researchers have tried to understand the role of plastic debris as a source of chemical contaminants into the foodweb, raising several questions regarding:

(i) whether contaminants transfer from the plastic to animals upon ingestion, (ii) how important this may be relative to other sources of contaminants in foodwebs and (iii) if contaminants from plastic debris biomagnify in top predators. These questions have been explored using computer modeling (Teuten et al. 2007; Gouin et al. 2011; Koelmans et al. 2013, 2014; Koelmans 2015), assessing correlations between plastic ingestion and chemical body burdens (Ryan et al. 1988; Teuten et al. 2009; Yamashita et al. 2011; Tanaka et al. 2013; Lavers et al. 2014) and/or using experimental techniques to measure the bioaccumulation of chemicals from plastic in laboratory animals (Gaylor et al. 2012; Besseling et al. 2013; Browne et al. 2013; Rochman et al. 2013b; Chua et al. 2014). Modeling approaches are useful for interpreting experimental and observation data, as well as for risk assessment of the hazards caused by plastic ingestion in wildlife (Koelmans 2015). Because this is discussed in detail by Koelmans (2015), the discussion here will be limited to observational data in the field and experimental data in the laboratory.

There are several lines of evidence suggesting that chemical contaminants do transfer from plastic debris to marine animals. Correlative evidence in the field and laboratory shows that the concentrations of PCBs (Ryan et al. 1988; Teuten et al. 2009; Yamashita et al. 2011) and trace metals (Lavers et al. 2014) in seabirds are positively correlated with the mass of ingested plastic. Moreover, seabirds collected from the North Pacific were found with similar congener patterns of PBDEs in their tissues as those found on the ingested plastic in their gut content (Tanaka et al. 2013) and myctophid fish collected from the South Atlantic were found with similar congener patterns of PBDEs in their tissues as those found on the plastic debris in the region (Rochman et al. 2014b). These observational data suggest that plastic-associated chemicals from plastic do transfer to wildlife upon ingestion.

This hypothesis has been further investigated in controlled laboratory studies, providing a stronger weight of evidence. Two studies demonstrated the bioaccumulation of additive PBDEs in crickets (Acheta domesticus; Gaylor et al. 2012) and amphipods (Allorchestes compressa; Chua et al. 2014) as a result of the ingestion of plastic. Another study showed greater concentrations of PCBs in lugworms exposed to contaminated sediment with polystyrene as opposed to contaminated sediment without plastic, suggesting that the existence of the plastic in the experiment facilitated the transfer of chemicals to lugworms (Arenicola marina; Besseling et al. 2013). Another laboratory study demonstrated that both additive chemicals and chemicals that accumulate in nature (nonylphenol, phenanthrene, PBDE-47 and triclosan) desorb from PVC and can transfer into the tissues of lugworms upon ingestion (A. marina; Browne et al. 2013). Lastly, a study measuring the bioaccumulation of POPs sorbed to plastics demonstrated the transfer of chrysene, PCB 28 and several congeners of PBDEs to fish from the ingestion of polyethylene pellets (Rochman et al. 2013b). Thus, there is strong evidence showing that chemical contaminants can bioaccumulate in marine life when plastic debris is ingested. What remains less understood, is whether these plastic-associated contaminants biomagnify in higher trophic level animals as a direct result of plastic ingestion (potentially leading to bioaccumulation of plastic-derived chemicals in seafood; Fig. 5.3) and how important bioaccumulation from plastic is relative to bioaccumulation from other sources of chemical contamination in the environment (e.g. chemical contamination that is ubiquitous in water, sediments and food webs globally; Ross and Birnbaum 2010). Still, the fact that chemicals from plastic debris can transfer to marine animals begs the question, how do these chemicals associated with plastic debris impact marine organisms?

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