Hazards Associated with the Complex Mixture of Plastic and Sorbed Pollutants

Here, we will not focus on any physical adverse effects from the material itself, although it is worth noting that plastic debris may act as a multiple stressor to marine organisms as a result of the combination of both physical and chemical stressors (Rochman 2013). In this chapter, we will discuss the existing evidence of adverse chemical effects from the complex mixture of chemicals associated with plastic products and plastic marine debris. See Kühn et al. (2015) and Lusher (2015) for information regarding any adverse effects from plastic debris not related to the chemical impacts.

Some studies have assessed the toxicity of the leachates from plastic products. These incorporate adverse effects from the complex mixture of chemical ingredients associated with the material. One researcher exposed Daphnia magna to leachates from several plastic products and found that all leachates from PVC, polyurethane and epoxy products were acutely toxic (48-h EC50 s) at concentrations ranging from 2 to 235 grams of plastic per liter of water (Lithner et al. 2009, 2012). Another study found that most of the 500 plastic products sampled leached chemicals that had estrogenic activity, detected by an E-screen assay (Yang et al. 2011). Similarly, Wagner and Oehlmann (2009, 2011) detected estrogenic contamination in PET water bottles, concluding that PET packaging materials are a source of estrogen-like compounds.

Moreover, when plastic becomes marine debris, it accumulates several other priority pollutants from the surrounding seawater, including several organic pollutants and metals. Ecotoxicological work has shown that priority pollutants such as these can degrade the structure and functions of ecosystems. Key physiological processes of organisms (e.g. cell-division, immunity, secretion of hormones) can be disrupted, causing disease (e.g. cancer; Zhuang et al. 2009; Vasseur and Cossu-Leguille 2006; Oehlmann et al. 2009) and reducing the ability to escape predators (Cartwright et al. 2006) and reproduce (Brown et al. 2004). Recently, some evidence has emerged regarding the impacts associated with the complex mixture of plastic and sorbed contaminants to organisms. One laboratory study found that the ingestion of PVC with sorbed triclosan altered feeding behavior and caused mortality in lugworms (A. marina; Browne et al. 2013). Another study fed fish polyethylene that had been deployed in the San Diego Bay, CA (i.e. allowing the plastic to accumulate environmentally relevant concentrations of priority pollutants). After a two-month dietary exposure to plastic with a complex mixture of sorbed priority pollutants (POPs and metals), fish suffered from liver toxicity, including glycogen depletion, lipidosis, cellular death and tumor promotion (Rochman et al. 2013b) and showed signs of endocrine disruption via changes in gene expression and abnormal growth of germ cells in the gonads (Rochman et al. 2014c). In both studies, adverse effects were demonstrated from the plastic alone, but organisms suffered greater effects when exposed to the mixture of plastic with sorbed chemical contaminants (Browne et al. 2013; Rochman et al. 2013b), further supporting the idea that when assessing the hazards of plastic debris it is important to consider the complex mixture of plastic debris, chemical ingredients and any sorbed chemical contaminants.

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