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'Significant and widespread' microplastics found in mussels from UK waters

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Microplastics and other debris have been found in 100 per cent of mussels sampled from around the UK coast, and from those bought in supermarkets, leading researchers to call for further study of health implications for humans.

Scientists from Brunel University London and the University of Hull collected samples from eight locations around the UK’s coastline between November 2016 and February 2017, as well as from eight unnamed supermarkets, representing eight different, unnamed brands.

The research found that:

  • 100 per cent of samples taken from UK waters and supermarket-bought products contained microplastics or other debris
  • for every 100g of mussels consumed, it is estimated there are approximately 70 pieces of microplastics
  • more particles were found in supermarket mussels which had been cooked or frozen than in the freshly caught mussels.

The findings have been published in the journal Environmental Pollution.

Professor Jeanette Rotchell, of Hull’s School of Environmental Sciences, said: “It is becoming increasingly evident that global contamination of the marine environment by microplastic is impacting wildlife, and its entry into the food chain is providing a pathway for the waste that we dispose of to be returned to us through our diet. This study provides further evidence of this route of exposure and we now need to understand the possible implications of digesting these very small levels. Continued research will hopefully drive effective human risk assessment.

“Chances are that these have no implications, but, nonetheless, there is not enough data out there to say there is no risk. We still need to do the studies and show that is the case.

“There is currently regulation of some contaminants in food; in the long term, regulatory solutions to this problem will also be needed.”

Professor Rotchell says that although microplastics have been found in samples collected, seafood is only one route of human exposure through our food; microplastics have also been found in other food sources – and drinking water. Airborne plastics can also be inhaled.

Hull’s researchers extracted microparticles from the mussels and then passed the fragments to Brunel’s Experimental Techniques Centre, where a team used electromagnetic radiation to investigate the composition, including diagnosing the extent of the microplastic pollution.

Dr Alan Reynolds, Deputy Director of Brunel’s Experimental Techniques Centre, said: “Blue Planet has rightly awoken the public to the devastating effects waste plastics are having on the marine environment. 

“This paper highlights that the problems are close to home in finding that these same polluting microplastics are now coming back to us in the food in our supermarkets.”

An estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the oceans each year, with significant environmental cost. Plastics are being consumed by marine organisms that mistake the waste for food

Mussels feed by filtering seawater through their bodies, ingesting particles such as microplastics and other debris as well as their food.

Professor Rotchell says it is not just microplastics which need to come under the microscope.

Of the debris found in mussels, the study showed around 50 per cent was made up of microplastics and 37 per cent from other debris including textiles such as rayon and cotton.

She said: “All the conversation is about microplastics, but textiles could also be worth investigation.”

‘Microplastics in mussels sampled from coastal waters and supermarkets in the United Kingdom’, by Jiana Li, Christopher Green, Alan Reynolds, Huahong Shi and Jeanette Rotchell, is published in Environmental Pollution.

Find out more about Brunel’s Experimental Techniques Centre and the Institute of Environment, Health and Societies, which features in the major feature documentary, A Plastic Ocean.

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