Microplastic meets oil: 'Plastitar' may be new category of ocean pollutant

ByMike Nicco and Tim Didion KGO logo
Friday, June 17, 2022
'Plastitar' may be new category of ocean pollutant
Researchers are finding new threats to ocean ecology in a combination of microplastics and oil buildup.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- For years, Bay Area environmental groups have warned of the dangers from microplastics reaching San Francisco Bay, microscopic fragments that often break off from the kinds of plastic trash we often find washing up on our beaches.

Dr. Peter Roopnerine is with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. He says, taken together, plastics and microplastics present a growing threat to marine life and the coastal environment.

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"We're finding them everywhere, we're finding them in high concentrations in the open ocean, they've been working their way into living organisms, because of their small size, through incorporation in cells or direct ingestion," explains Dr. Roopnerine.

But now, researchers believe plastics are combining with a second substance, oil, to create a different form of pollution. In a small study, a team on the Canary Islands documented dangerous microplastics encased in oily tar balls, created from spills or oil leaking from ships or pipelines, a combination being dubbed plastitar.

Roopnarine says the oil spills themselves are common around the world.

"So anything that any process that can aggregate these small particles, which we know, dense petroleum can is going to aggregate microplastics," he says.

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One concern is that that once the fragments are attached to a beach or coastline, they could degrade even further, finding their way into the food chain and marine environment.

Jennifer Stock is with the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

She says although the group doesn't monitor microplastics themselves, they do organize teams that routinely monitor the Bay Area coastline for signs of spilled oil that could threaten wildlife.

"And we really want to take care of these areas. We want to know about where oil is coming from because if we can identify if there is oil coming ashore regularly, we can try to find the source," says Stock.

So far, researchers say it's unclear if the plastitar phenomenon is limited to the Canary Islands or how widespread it might be. But they say it could be viewed as a red flag for the dual threat to our oceans from microplastics and industrial pollution.

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