Relative importance of microplastics as a pathway for the transfer of hydrophobic organic chemicals to marine life

It has been hypothesised that, if ingested, plastic debris could act as vector for the transfer of chemical contaminants from seawater to organisms, yet modelling suggest that, in the natural environment, chemical transfer would be negligible compared to other routes of uptake. However, to date, the models have not incorporated consideration of the role of gut surfactants, or the influence of pH or temperature on desorption, whilst experimental work has shown that these factors can enhance desorption of sorbed contaminants several fold. Here, we modelled the transfer of sorbed organic contaminants dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), phenanthrene (Phe) and bis-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) from microscopic particles of polyvinylchloride (PVC) and polyethylene (PE) to a benthic invertebrate, a fish and a seabird using a one-compartment model OMEGA (Optimal Modelling for EcotoxicoloGical Applications) with different conditions of pH, temperature and gut surfactants. Environmental concentrations of contaminants at the bottom and the top of published ranges were considered, in combination with ingestion of either 1 or 5% by weight of plastic. For all organisms, the combined intake from food and water was the main route of exposure for Phe, DEHP and DDT with a negligible input from plastic. For the benthic invertebrate, predictions including the presence of contaminated plastic resulted in very small increases in the internal concentrations of DDT and DEHP, while the net change in the transfer of Phe was negligible. While there may be scenarios in which the presence of plastic makes a more important contribution, our modelling study suggests that ingestion of microplastic does not provide a quantitatively important additional pathway for the transfer of adsorbed chemicals from seawater to biota via the gut.

Adil Bakir, Isabel A. O’Connor, Steven J. Rowland, A. Jan Hendriks, Richard C. Thompson, Environmental Pollution, Volume 219, December 2016, Pages 56–65

The article

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