New Disease ‘Plasticosis’ caused by Plastic affecting Seabirds
New research has shown that animals and humans alike are being impacted by plastic use, with a new disease ‘plasticosis’ affecting birds.
The study published on the Natural History Museum website highlighted that problems caused by plastic usage are increasing, with people and animals suffering from its adverse effects. Per the research, this new disease ‘plasticosis’ has been discovered in seabirds but it might “just be the tip of the iceberg”.
Unlike other diseases caused by infection such as viruses/bacteria, plasticosis is the result of plastic that inflames the digestive tract. With time, inflammation can result in scarring or deformation in tissues, and affect growth, digestion, and survival.
According to the study co-author, Principal Curator, and Curator in Charge of Birds, Dr. Alex Bond, “While these birds can look healthy on the outside, they’re not doing well on the inside”.
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The research highlights that for the first time, the stomach tissue of birds has been examined with a focus on understanding the damage caused by the consumption of plastic which can cause severe damage to their ‘digestive system’.
Published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, scientists argue that Although they have only discovered plasticosis in one species of birds, given the large-scale spread of plastic pollution, the effects must also be widespread. Eventually, it could even affect human health they argue.
What is Plasticosis?
Per the research, plasticosis is a form of fibrotic disease that can result in excessive scarring when an area of the body is repeatedly inflamed, preventing wounds from healing normally.
Under normal circumstances, scarring may appear after an injury that helps to strengthen the repair, however, when inflammation continually occurs, excessive amounts of scarring can appear on tissues resulting in reduced flexibility and structural change.
As far as plasticosis is concerned, irritation can be caused by shards of plastic as the bits dig into the stomach tissue of birds. The discovery was made during their decade-long investigation at Lord Howe Island, confirmed the scientists.
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They argue that despite the island being at an approximate distance of 600 kilometers from the coast of Australia, they discovered that the flesh-footed shearwaters, which inhabit the island are among the most plastic-contaminated species of bird in the world. This is because they often consume plastic waste mistaking it for food.
While focusing their study on the flesh-footed shearwaters, they found scarring of the proventriculus (first chamber of the bird’s stomach) was widespread and causing “similar wounds in the birds”. The consistency of the phenomenon led to them describing it as plasticosis as a specific disease. Prior to this, the term was used to discuss the breakdown of plastic in joint replacements. Given the results of the study, they have linked it with similar fibrotic diseases caused by inorganic materials namely: silicosis and asbestosis.
To date, the newly discovered disease is known to affect the digestive system, nonetheless, there are suggestions that it could even affect other parts of the body including the lungs.
Impacts of Plasticosis?
According to the study, scarring caused by plasticosis may eventually result in structural changes in the proventriculus. With consistent exposure to plastic, the tissue will become “generally more swollen until it begins to break down”.
Dr. Alex Bond said, “The tubular glands, which secrete digestive compounds, are perhaps the best example of the impact of plasticosis”. He elaborated that when plastic enters the body, these glans “get gradually more stunned until they eventually lose their tissue structure entirely at the highest levels of exposure”.
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Without these glands, birds will be more vulnerable to infections and parasites which will in turn affect their ability to absorb vitamins. Scarring may also cause the stomach to become hardened and less flexible, making for less effective digestion of food explains the study.
Especially more harmful for younger birds and chicks, plasticosis can make it difficult for them to hold food. Previous studies have even shown that as many as ninety percent of young birds can contain at least some plastic fed to them by their parents.
Scientists argue that in extreme cases, it can result in death by starvation as the birds’ stomachs are filled with plastic hindering their digestion. It is even likely that plasticosis can be one of the factors to influence how plastic affects the growth of younger flesh-footed shearwaters.
According to the study, the length of a bird’s wing is also linked with the amount of plastic it may have consumed, while the number of plastic pieces is linked with the overall weight of the bird.
On the other hand, the study showed that consuming pumice stones (another inorganic substance) does not lead to scarring rather, they may break down the plastic into smaller fragments which can lead to more serious damage.
Addressing the shortcomings of the study, Dr. Alex Bond said there is reason to believe other species may also be affected by plastic waste, but this remains to be discovered in greater detail.
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