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New disease caused solely by plastics discovered in seabirds

Plastic levels are so high that the health of wildlife is under threat. New research has led to the discovery of a disease – termed plasticosis – in seabirds that is caused solely by the ingestion of plastic.

A team of scientists, including the Natural History Museum’s Dr. Alex Bond and Dr. Jennifer Lavers, studied Flesh-footed Shearwaters from Australia’s Lord Howe Island to look at the relationship between levels of ingested plastic, and the proventriculus organ – the first part of a bird’s stomach.

Across the different birds examined during the study, the researchers found that proventriculus scarring was widespread. Birds that had ingested more plastic had higher levels of scarring, leading to the team to characterise the new disease.

Plasticosis, a fibrotic disease, is caused by small pieces of plastic which inflame the digestive tract. Over time, the persistent inflammation causes tissues to become scarred and deformed, with the knock-on effects including digestion, growth and survival issues.

The researchers also found that other inorganic items in the birds’ guts, such as pumice stones, do not contribute to such scarring.

Dr. Alex Bond, who co-authored the study and is Principal Curator and Curator in Charge of Birds at the Natural History Museum, says, ‘While these birds can look healthy on the outside, they’re not doing well on the inside.’

‘This study is the first time that stomach tissue has been investigated in this way and shows that plastic consumption can cause serious damage to these birds’ digestive system.’

It is thought chicks are being accidentally, but directly, fed the plastic pollution by parents bringing back food for them.

The disease can lead to the gradual breakdown of tubular glands in the proventriculus. Losing these glands can cause the birds to become more vulnerable to infection and parasites and affect their ability to digest food and absorb some vitamins.

While plasticosis is only known in one bird species currently, the scale of plastic pollution means that it may be much more widespread.

‘Plasticosis’: Characterising macro- and microplastic-associated fibrosis in seabird tissues is published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials.

Credit: Natural History Museum

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