The potential for microplastics to cause harm in the marine environment
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Reason for embargo
I have one paper I wish to publish from my thesis.
Plastic debris is an emerging environmental issue, with >10 million tons of plastics debris per annum entering the sea. Exposure to marine conditions facilitates the exponential fragmentation of plastic to micro-sized particles (microplastics). Marine and coastal sediments are a sink for microplastic pollution. Consequently, the ingestion of microplastics by a range of benthic marine invertebrates, including polychaete worms, has been reported in situ. Microplastics are vectors for priority pollutants capable of eliciting adverse health effects. However, the particle and chemical toxicity which microplastics could incur to ecologically-important marine invertebrates is unknown. This thesis aims to determine the potential for microplastics to cause harm in the marine environment, with a focus on benthic polychaete worms. Specifically, it assesses the potential particle toxicity which could arise from chemical-free microplastics; and the potential chemical toxicity which could arise from leached endogenous chemical additives or sorbed chemical pollutants. To address these, an integrative approach was employed, primarily using laboratory-based whole-sediment in vivo exposures, established cellular and whole-tissue toxicity assays, and analytical chemistry. For the first time, this thesis reports that chemical-free microplastics cause particle toxicity in the lugworm Arenicola marina. Feeding activity was reduced during exposure to 5% microscopic unplasticised polyvinylchloride (UPVC) by sediment weight, whilst exposure to ≥1% UPVC by sediment weight significantly reduced energy reserves relative to control animals. Evidence for the transfer and toxicity of endogenous additives from PVC to lugworms is provided. Lugworms exposed to 1% PVC by sediment weight exhibited a 70% increase in additive concentration, coinciding with inhibited mucus production and enhanced lipid reserves and oxygen consumption, compared to control lugworms. Ragworms (Hediste diversicolor) exposed to leached toxicants from bioplastic cigarette debris were found to exhibit significantly longer burrowing times, >30% weight loss, and >2-fold increase in DNA damage compared to control ragworms. Bio-concentration factors for nicotine – the biomarker of exposure - were 500 fold higher from leachates in seawater than from microfibres in sediment. Overall, this thesis provides evidence to suggest that the incorporation of microplastics into marine sediments can significantly impact the health of marine polychaete worms due to both particle and chemical effects. This emphasises the need to reconsider the classification of plastic as non-hazardous and questions whether we as humans are also at risk.
Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs
PhD in Biological Sciences