Ian pushes up microplastics on the Space Coast
Hurricane Ian washed in tiny bits of plastic in Satellite Beach
A week after Hurricane Ian brushed the Space Coast, Keri Owen’s sunrise walk on Wednesday yielded a colorful yet depressing sight of what the storm brought to Brevard beaches: countless chips of plastic bits.
“They extended for maybe 200 feet,” Owen said.
She gathered ta few handfuls, before tiring of picking them up. “I later found out that they are called microplastics.”
In the midst of its heavy winds and rain, Hurricane Ian pushed onshore tiny pieces of the plastic we jettison from our homes, shed from our clothes or dump into the ocean where they break down into smaller and smaller fragments, threatening people and creatures who ingest this still little understood danger.
Microplastics are bits of plastic less than 5 millimeters, the broken-down bits of our synthetic surroundings. Larger shards of plastic eventually break down into microplastics. Nylon and polypropylene fibers from our clothing are among the most common microplastics. University of Central Florida researchers say old fraying boat ropes, fishing equipment and other broken-down plastic bits are main source culprits.
Boating, cruising, and tourism in general add plastics to the waters. The combination of hurricanes and tourism, scientists have discovered, can increase microplastic concentrations in the environment, making Florida the perfect microplastic storm.
Studies have shown that when winds and storm surge churn the waters off Florida, they often disturb sediments, stirring up previously settled microplastics from the bottom of the ocean. These then get caught in waves are distributed far and wide along the beaches and wherever else the contaminated water flows.
And that can be bad.
The itty-bitty plastics can build up in top predators like us, as well as birds and fish.
Researchers have documented more than 180 animal species that ingest microplastics, including sea turtles. In several species, plastics block the digestive system, damage organs and result in reduced feeding, growth rates and reproductive failure.
Substances such as phthalates – which can cause cancer and endocrine disruption in humans – and other plasticizers used to increase flexibility, durability and transparency of plastics have shown up in whales and other marine life.
Crabs and oysters we eat from the Indian River Lagoon harbor tiny bits of plastic. Sometimes the plastics lodge in crab gills, decreasing their ability to respire. Most oysters appear unaffected.
But eating them possesses unknown health risks to humans.
The topic is still very new, biologists say, but some studies show toxic chemicals known to cause ill effects in humans cling to plastics.
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