Humans hitchhiking? Tolerable. Animals hitchhiking? Cute, funny, or amazing. Dangerous pathogens hitchhiking? Nightmare. That’s right, now even pathogens are able to hitchhike all thanks to plastic found in waters. This way, bad infection like Cholera can spread freely and widely.
What a time to be alive in this century. Certainly not as bad as the century when The Black Death decimated humanity, but we might come to that point because of this (and if we can’t stop it). Because you know, back in mid 1800s, Cholera used to be one of the worst pandemic in history with approximately a million death toll.
This discovery started with dangerous sewage pathogens that were hitchhiking on plastic litter on some of Scotland’s bathing beaches. Scientists began to worry that this phenomenon could have a far reaching implications for human health globally.
University of Stirling, the one who did the research, have made environmentalists’ nightmare come true. It’s confirmed that tiny plastic beads that you can find on beaches, rivers, and seas around the world are actually free rafts for harmful bacteria. These plastics transport them from sewage outfalls and agricultural runoff to shellfish beds and bathing waters.
According to Dr. Richard Quilliam, the study’s principal investigator, this can potentially transport cholera from India all the way to the USA. “The danger is that pathogens could be transported over large distances and survive for much longer than normal,” Quilliam said.
“When a pathogen is bound to a piece of plastic it’s going to be protected, as it can hide from things that normally kill it, like UV light. And once you are sitting on a piece of plastic that is designed to be persistent for hundreds of years, and you are floating in the ocean currents, you have the opportunity to move great distances,” he went on.
The scientists collected samples from five beaches in East Lothian. They found that 45% of plastic pellets with the size and shape of a lentil were polluted with E.Coli, which as you might have known, a nasty bacteria that causes diarrhoea and cramps. E.Coli is already bad per se, but when there are lots of it, it means that there’s a sewage pollution.
Dr. Quilliam said that these pellets are a risk to children. He said, “Understanding and knowing the risks is important. We need to think about exposure rates to humans of pathogens on plastic. Bathing water is regulated by EU directives, which check for E coli in the water,”
“But they don’t check plastic particles that could be contaminated with E coli on the beach. Brightly coloured nurdles are a magnet for children – and you wouldn’t want children putting these in their mouths.”
Nurdles or pellets are the main material of plastic goods, from single use water bottles to plastic furniture or television sets. They get into the sea because of accidental spillage from shipping containers or lorries. How many are there in the ocean? One estimate suggested that there are up to 53 billion pellets are released annually in the UK from the plastic industry.
Researchers successfully tested two kinds of bacteria, but they believe that these nurdles could attract other pathogens such as rotavirus and norovirus. “I would have a very good guess that they do,” said Dr. Quilliam, “They bind to other plastic things like water pipes, by binding to the bacteria.”
You may be asking whether these hitchhikers can survive longer on plastic than when they’re floating freely in the sea. Unfortunately, researchers still need to continue their study. “This research is in its infancy,” said Quilliam.
Can you really free ocean from plastic?
I think we can all say that plastic has a set of curses and gifts. It makes humans live easier in some part but the long term effect of it is really bad. We’re still not done with ocean waste and landfills and now we have a new problem that has dangerous health risks.
So the question is, can we really free ocean from plastic so that we can prevent possible pandemic or marine habitat loss among other things?
It’s not that simple, but the answer is yes. You can free ocean from plastic. First off, you might already know about a device that sucks in water and traps trash in a mesh bag and it recirculate water back into the environment. There are now 450 of this device (called Seabins) in 26 countries around the world. Seabins collect around 4kg of marine litter a day, and about 1,4 tonnes annually.
Similar device called Mr. Trash Wheel or Baltimore Water Wheel is exclusive in Baltimore’s Inner Harbour, on the north-east coast of the US. The mechanism of this device begins with the turn of the wheel that collects litter and stores it for later removal. Both devices clean the waters and even though it’s not too much, small scale cleanups actually have a local impact.
Although such devices exist, everything goes back to how humanity treats the environment. It’s almost no use to put a lot of water-sucking devices but people keep the waste coming. What the environment needs is both behavioral change as well as policy change.
Also, one important, essential thing is education. When people are educated enough about what humanity has done to the environment and how we can make the world better one step at a time, our planet won’t have to suffer any further.