Wasting Away in Microplastics

There has been a lot of focus on microplastic pollution in our Florida waters in recent years. Numerous scientific studies from environmental researchers and scientists around the globe have collected information such as measured concentrations of microplastics in the ocean, rivers, and other bodies of water, microplastics found in fish and other aquatic life, and testing for wide ranges of chemicals like PFAS that come from plastics leeching into the environment.

A recent study by Florida Atlantic University researchers confirmed high amounts of the flesh-eating bacteria, vibrio, in sargassum seaweed that has washed up on the shores along the west coast of Florida. The study highlighted the way that pathogens like the deadly vibrio have the ability to stick to microplastics as the plastic material creates a surface area for them to bond.

The research conducted in water bodies around the world has given us invaluable information and has led to awareness in our communities and important legislation.

The general public tends to focus on conversations about microplastics in our water and they are most certainly of paramount importance, but it should not end there. 100% of the plastics found in our waterways originated from land-based operations. We should all be asking ourselves what impact microplastics are having on our soil, wildlife, and plant life. What are the impacts on human health?

The National Institutes of Health states that “Microplastics have been shown to affect the rooting ability of plants by altering soil bulk density and water-holding capacity, as well as reducing photosynthetic rate by directly interfering with the balance of plant chlorophyll a/chlorophyll b ratios.” Microplastics in soil have also been found to decrease soil pH, affect the germination of seeds, and affect the development of certain types of worms. It is safe to say that microplastics in any environment are a tangible threat to biodiversity in any ecosystem. The more we learn, the more we realize just how pervasive and damaging they can be. 

The scientific community has discovered microplastics in the human placenta, lung tissue, blood, and even in the tissue that makes up our veins. The Medical University of Vienna published research that concluded the average human consumes approximately 5 grams of plastic every week. This is a consumption rate of about 40 pounds of plastic in a lifetime.

Just this week, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) issued an emergency order after the discovery of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in North Florida deer. This disease is contagious to other deer, attacks the brain, and leads to eventual starvation and death. While FWC states that the prion, a pathogenic agent, that causes CWD is “naturally occurring”, this sudden alarm being sounded due to an outbreak Florida has never experienced before is causing environmental advocates to question the relation of this disorder to microplastics. We know that pathogens can travel through soil by way of microplastic migration. As wind, rain, and human interference cause plastics to break down and move through our environment, is the pathogen that causes CWD migrating through Florida soils too? How long until this fatal disease reaches the precious and endangered Key deer in South Florida? As Floridians, we have heard the term “naturally occurring” refer to blue-green algae which is a toxic cyanobacteria, and red tide which refers to Karenia brevis, a harmful algae. We know now that human interference from things like fertilizer runoff compound and exacerbate these “naturally occurring” blooms.

FWC has established a CWD management zone in North Florida and has asked the public to report underweight, sick, or deceased deer to the CWD hotline at 866-293-9282 in an attempt to slow or stop the spread of this devastating disease. The American Veterinary Medical Association website states, “Signs of a possibly infected animal include stumbling, lowered head, droopy ears, weakness, a wide stance (as if trying to balance themselves), excessive salivation and emaciation ("wasting")” and “Do not shoot, handle or consume any animal that is acting abnormally or appears to be ill. Contact your state fish and game agency if you see or harvest an animal that appears ill.” At this time, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has no information that implies CWD has ever been passed to humans through consumption, but it is not recommended to consume any animal that is noticeably ill and precautions should be taken.

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