Microplastic particles are increasingly being discovered in diverse habitats and a host of species are found to ingest them. Since plastics are known to sorb hydrophobic organic contaminants (HOCs) there is a question of what risk of chemical exposure is posed to aquatic biota from microplastic-associated contaminants. We investigate bioavailability of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from polypropylene microplastic by measuring solid-water distribution coefficients, gut fluid solubilization, and bioaccumulation using sediment invertebrate worms as a test system. Microplastic-associated PCBs are placed in a differential bioavailability framework by comparing the results to several other natural and anthrogenic particles, including wood, coal, and biochar. PCB distribution coefficients for polypropylene were higher than natural organic materials like wood, but in the range of lipids and sediment organic carbon, and smaller than black carbons like coal and biochars. Gut fluid solubilization potential increased in the order: coal < polypropylene < biochar < wood. Interestingly, lower gut fluid solubilization for polypropylene than biochar infers that gut fluid micelles may have solubilized part of the biochar matrix while bioaccessibility from plastic can be limited by the solubilizing potential of gut fluids dependent on the solid to liquid ratio or renewal of fluids in the gut. Biouptake in worms was lower by 76% when PCBs were associated with polypropylene compared to sediment. The presence of microplastics in sediments had an overall impact of reducing bioavailability and transfer of HOCs to sediment-ingesting organisms. Since the vast majority of sediment and suspended particles in the environment are natural organic and inorganic materials, pollutant transfer through particle ingestion will be dominated by these particles and not microplastics. Therefore, these results support the conclusion that in most cases the transfer of organic pollutants to aquatic organisms from microplastic in the diet is likely a small contribution compared to other natural pathways of exposure.
B. Beckingham, U. Ghosh, Environmental Pollution, Volume 220, Part A, January 2017, Pages 150–158