Plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. It affects not only marine ecosystems, but also human health and well-being. A recent study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials has revealed a new and alarming consequence of plastic ingestion: a fibrotic disease called “plasticosis”.
The researchers examined the stomach tissues of 30 flesh-footed shearwater fledglings from Lord Howe Island, Australia. These seabirds are known to ingest large amounts of plastic debris, mistaking it for food or prey. The study found that plastic presence was highly associated with widespread scar tissue formation and extensive changes to, and even loss of, tissue structure within the mucosa and submucosa. The scar tissue was composed of collagen, a protein that normally provides strength and elasticity to tissues. However, when collagen accumulates excessively, it can impair the normal function of organs and lead to fibrosis.
Fibrosis is a condition where scar tissue replaces healthy tissue, causing stiffness, pain, inflammation, and reduced blood flow. Fibrosis can affect various organs, such as the lungs, liver, kidneys, heart, and skin. Several fibrotic diseases have been linked to environmental exposure to durable compounds, such as silica and asbestos . The researchers suggest that plastics may induce a similar response, where excessive scar tissue formation in response to plastic-induced inflammation may lead to organs becoming fibrotic.
The study also found that the pathology was caused directly by plastic, rather than natural items, such as pumice, that were also found in the gastrointestinal tract of the seabirds. This highlights the unique pathological properties of plastics and raises concerns for other species impacted by plastic ingestion. The researchers propose that the term “plasticosis” be used to describe this novel plastic-induced fibrotic disease.
Plasticosis may have serious implications for the survival and reproduction of seabirds. The researchers note that fibrosis may affect the digestion, growth, and development of fledglings, as well as their ability to fly and migrate. Moreover, plasticosis may compromise the immune system of seabirds, making them more susceptible to infections and diseases. Plasticosis may also affect the reproductive success of seabirds, as fibrosis may impair the production and quality of eggs.
Plasticosis is not only a threat to seabirds, but also to humans. As biota are increasingly exposed to plastic pollution, there is a need to closely examine the sub-lethal ‘hidden’ impacts of plastic ingestion on human health. Plastic particles can enter the human body through various pathways, such as ingestion, inhalation, or skin contact . Plastic particles can also transfer toxic chemicals or pathogens that may cause adverse effects on human health . Plastic particles may also trigger inflammatory responses in human tissues, leading to fibrosis or other chronic diseases .
Plasticosis is a new and emerging disease that requires urgent attention and action. The researchers call for more studies on the prevalence and severity of plasticosis in other wildlife species, as well as its potential impacts on human health. They also urge for more efforts to reduce plastic consumption and emission into the environment, as well as to improve plastic waste management and remediation. Plasticosis is a reminder that plastic pollution is not only an environmental problem, but also a public health problem that affects us all.
: Charlton-Howard et al., 2023. ‘Plasticosis’: Characterising macro- and microplastic-associated fibrosis in seabird tissues. Journal of Hazardous Materials 450: 131090.