A while back, we posted some comments from Dr. Williscroft, who questioned our claims that the plastic marine debris issue is a significant one, and warrants immediate action.
An interesting addendum to the story: I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Williscroft at a presentation I gave last week to the Los Angeles Adventurers club. To my surprise, he was extremely amiable, and interested in our research, he simply wanted to see quantitative data to illustrate our claims. Fair enough.
The response from Marcus generated further debate on both ends. For those who have followed this lively dialogue, heres part deux:
"I appreciate your reasoned response, but I still see little quantitative information to sink my teeth into. First, while the story of the train wreck is interesting, it misses the point. This was an example of an urgent problem that was NOT being addressed. I suspect you are addressing a no-urgent problem with unwarranted urgency. You state: “…the density of pelagic plastic has doubled since 2005.” This is the kind of statement that is widely used to camouflage fuzzy data. Mind you, I’m NOT saying you are doing this, but this isn’t substantive information. If there was one acre of trash in 2005 and not there is two acres (a doubling), it’s a non problem. If there were twenty thousand acres in 2005, and that has doubled – that strikes me as more noteworthy. But when compared to the vast expanse of the world’s oceans, is even that a “problem” with urgent considerations?"
And now, a response from Marcus:
Dear Robert G. Williscroft, PhD
It seems you misunderstood my point about the urgency to address the plastic marine debris issue. If you “do not see quantitative information to sink your teeth into,” as you state, may I request again that you visit our website for references to the work of our scientists and others. Or browse any university library and scroll through the Marine Pollution Bulletin, or search the index catalog for names like C. Moore, A. Andrady, H. Takada, or R. Thompson. You will find substantial quantitative evidence to document all of our scientific claims. If your sincere interest is a scientific argument, then I strongly suggest you start there. At the end of this response, I have included a list of publications for your review.
From your response, I gather that scientific articles may not be sufficient. To this I have no response. The peer review process in scientific journals is the best available means to share data around the world, other than dragging every scientist into your lab to see physical phenomena with their own eyes. In the peer review process a proposed scientific study is anonymously criticized by other leading scientists in that field. Almost always, the first task is to point out errors in statistical measures or significance. You appear to doubt the statistical significance of our data, therefore, since you live in Southern California, I invite you to visit our lab in Redondo Beach. You will be given a personal tour so that you can see the physical phenomena with your own eyes.
The occurrence of plastic marine debris throughout the North Pacific Ocean is well documented, as are the hundreds of species found with plastic marine debris in or around their bodies. The Algalita Marine Research Foundation has found significant concentrations of DDT, PCBs and PAHs sorbed onto plastic marine debris. Other studies show that the compounds migrate from ingested plastic into the bodies of some organisms. In other research it is well documented that these man-made synthetic chemicals are carcinogenic, endocrine disruptors, and can be attributed to other ailments found in wildlife and humans. There is also wide evidence that man-made synthetic chemicals are bioaccumulating and biomagnifying up the food chain. As I said in my earlier response, the current scientific question is, “Are persistent organic pollutants consumed by marine organisms bioaccumulating up the food chain and into the fisheries that we harvest?”
Admittedly, the causal links from plastic trash in our storm drains, to marine debris, to wildlife contamination and human health concerns, is a difficult chain to connect. Yet, this logical circle is fearfully coming to fruition. Add to this the exponential growth of plastic trash accumulating in the world’s oceans. The plastics industry reported U.S. production of 120 billion pounds of plastic annually, representing a 100% increase in 15 years. This parallels the growth of plastic trash found in the North Pacific Gyre. In 2003 the California Integrated Waste Management Board reported that 25% of plastic produced could not be accounted for through recycling programs, durable goods, or landfills. We are seeing that missing plastic waste accumulating in our oceans. A burgeoning sense of urgency is the meeting of these two roads: our throwaway society, and long-term human health. But, this is not a scientific argument. It is a moral one.
To say that you need to see the effect before you address the cause is unwise considering the global impact of plastic marine debris, especially when all the causal links are illuminating long-term human health concerns. If prosperity, longevity and security of human populations worldwide are tantamount, then employ the precautionary principle.
“There is evidence for adverse health effects in animals, significant human exposure, and safer alternatives are readily available, therefore, until proven otherwise, plastic marine debris and the associated sorbed toxins and pre-production plasticers should be assumed to impact human health. Scientific certainty is not required prior to taking regulatory action.”
If your fear is economics, as you eluded to in your initial reply, then I suggest alternatives to petroleum-based plastics and our throwaway society that are healthy for the environment, our bodies and the marketplace. While much of the developed world embraces a cultural shift to the Sustainable Century, the United States resists departing the Synthetic Century. I would rather see our nation lead rather than lag behind. Markets in alternatives to disposable plastics, like stainless steel water bottles and coffee mugs, and cloth grocery bags, are soaring. To show good faith, when I return to Los Angeles I’ll send you a reusable water bottle. In fact, you can have one of the 100 stainless steel ones we have on JUNK as a souvenir.
Meanwhile, here’s a list of references.
EVIDENCE OF PLASTIC IN THE OCEAN
Robards, M. D.; Gould, P. J.; Piatt, J. F. The highest global concentrations and increased abundance of oceanic plastic debris in the North Pacific: Evidence from seabirds. In Marine Debris; Coe, J. M.; Rogers, D. B., Eds.; Springer: Berlin, 1997.
Reddy, M. S.; Basha, S.; Adimurthy, S.; Ramachandraiah, G. Description of the plastics fragments in marine sediments along the Alang-Sosiya ship-breaking yard, India. Estuarine, Coastal Shelf Sci. 2006, 68, 656-660.
Carpenter, E. J.; Anderson, S. J.; Harvey, G. R.; Miklas, H. P.; Peck, B. B. Polystyrene spherules in coastal water. Science (Washington, DC, U.S.) 1972, 178, 749-750.
Ng, K. L.; Obbard, J. P. Prevalence of microplastics in Singapore’s coastal marine environment. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 2006, 52, 761- 767.
Gregory, M. R. Plastic “scrubbers” in hand cleansers: A further (and minor) source for marine pollution identified. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 1996, 32, 867-871.
George, G. A. Weathering of polymers. Mater. Forum 1995, 19, 145-161.
Wurl, O.; Obbard, J. P. A review of pollutants in the sea-surface microlayer (SML): A unique habitat for marine microorganisms. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 2004, 48, 1016-1030.
EVIDENCE OF PERSISTENT ORGANIC POLLUTANTS ON PLASTIC
Thompson, R. C., Teuten, E., Rowland, S. J., Galloway, T. Potential for Plastics to Transport Hydrophobic Contaminants. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2007, 41, 7759-7764.
Rios, L. M.; Moore, C.; Jones, P. R. Persistent organic pollutants carried by synthetic polymers in the ocean environment. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 2007, 54, 1230-1237.
Mato, Y.; Isobe, T.; Takada, H.; Kanehiro, H.; Ohtake, C.; Kaminuma, T. Plastic resin pellets as a transport medium for toxic chemicals in the marine environment. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2001, 35, 308-324.
Ye, S.; Andrady, A. L. Fouling of floating plastic debris under Biscayne Bay exposure conditions. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 1991, 22, 608-613.
Brunauer, S.; Emmett, P. H.; Teller, E. Adsorption of gases in multimolecular layers. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1938, 60, 309-319.
Hardy, J. T.; Crecelius, E. A.; Antrim, L. D.; Keiesser, S. L.; Broadhurst, V. L.; Boehm, P. D.; Steinhauer, W. G.; Coogan, T. H. Aquatic surface microlayer contamination in Chesapeake Bay. Mar. Chem. 1990, 28, 333-351.
Pascall, M. A.; Zabik, M. A.; Zabik, M. J.; Hernandez, R. J. Uptake of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from an aqueous medium by polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, and polystyrene films. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2005, 53, 164-169.
EVIDENCE OF PLASTIC IN OR AROUND THE BODIES OF MARINE ORGANISMS
Derraik, J. G. B. The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: A review. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 2002, 44, 842-852.
Laist, D. W. Impacts of marine debris: Entanglement of marine life in debris including a comprehensive list of species with entanglement and ingestion records. In Marine Debris; Coe, J. M.; Rogers, D. B., Eds.; Springer: Berlin, 1997.
Fry, D. M.; Fefer, S. I.; Sileo, L. Ingestion of plastic by laysan albatrosses and wedge-tailed shearwaters in the Hawaiian Islands. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 1987, 18, 339-343.
Eriksson, C.; Burton, H. Origins and biological accumulation of small plastic particles in fur seals from Macquire Island. Ambio 2003 32, 380-384.
EVIDENCE OF PERSISTENT ORGANIC POLLUTANTS IN MARINE ORGANISMS
Ryan, P. G.; Connell, A. D.; Gardener, B. D. Plastic ingestion and PCBs in seabirds: Is there a relationship? Mar. Pollut. Bull. 1988, 19, 174-176.
Thompson, R. C.; Olsen, Y.; Mitchell, R. P.; Davis, A.; Rowland, S. J.; John, A. W. G.; McGonigle, D.; Russell, A. Lost at sea: Where is all the plastic? Science (Washington, DC, U.S.) 2004, 304, 838.
Voparil, I. M.; Mayer, L. A. Dissolution of sedimentary polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons into the lugworm’s (Arenicola marina) digestive fluids. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2000, 34, 1221-1228.
Voparil, I. M.; Mayer, L. A. Commercially available chemicals that mimic a deposit feeder’s (Arenicola marina) digestive solubilization of lipids. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2004, 38, 4334- 4339.
Lu, X.; Reible, D. D.; Fleeger, J. W. Relative importance of ingested sediment versus pore water as uptake routes for PAHs to the deposit-feeding oligochaete Ilyodrilus templetoni. Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 2004, 47, 207-214.
Weston, D. P.; Penry, D. L.; Gulmann, L. K. The role of ingestion as a route of contaminant bioaccumulation in a deposit-feeding polychaete. Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 2000, 38, 446- 454.
Timmermann, K.; Anderson, O. Bioavailability of pyrene to the deposit-feeding polychaete Arenicola marina: Importance of sediment versus water uptake routes. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 2003, 246, 163-172.
Lamoureux, E. M.; Brownawell, B. J. Chemical and biological availability of sediment-sorbed hydrophobic organic contaminants. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 1999, 18, 1733-1741.
Finally, a response from Tamara Adkins, Doctoral Candidate from Antioch University:
I appreciate the attention Dr. Robert G. Williscroft has given to the voyage of the Junk. I was curious to know more about him, and scanned his resume and list of publications online. His impressive credentials include supervising the National Science Foundation Atmospheric Research Program at the South Pole, Given his expertise, I would expect an evidence-based rebuttal to the messages to which Dr Eriksen is bringing our attnetion. If he is aware of studies that would lead to us believe that plastic debris is not increasing in the ocean, or that it is not a threat to wildlife, I would be interested in seeing it.
As an endocrine disruption researcher, the weight of evidence certainly supports the toxicity of even very low doses of many of the monomers and additives found in common plastics (such as phthalates, bisphenol-A, styrene, vinyl chloride, organotin, lead, etc.). Adding these contaminants to the marine food chain does not seem wise. However, I subscribe to the precautionary principle -- the idea that if the risk of catastrophic harm is highly likely but not proven, it would make sense to delay action until further research results are compiled. (This, of course, assumes that not taking action is an option, and that it does not carry its own risks). I suspect, based on the reviews, of Dr Williscroft's book "Chicken Little,", that he does not subscribe to the precautionary principle. In his book, he "debunks" global warming and the hole in the ozone layer, as well as addressing unfounded fears about "terrorists, illegal immigrants, the Bird Flu, fuel dependency, food toxicity, antibiotic resistant bacteria". Mixing politics with science is familiar territory for Dr. Williscroft.