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New disease found in seabirds is caused by plastic consumption

A study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials has recently described a new fibrotic disease in seabirds. Instead of being caused by infectious agents such as viruses or bacteria, “plasticosis” is caused by small pieces of plastic that the birds ingest from their environment, leading to inflammation of their digestive tracts. Over time, repeated or persistent inflammation can cause digestive tissues to become scarred or deformed, which impacts the birds’ digestion, growth, and ultimately survival.

“While these birds can look healthy on the outside, they’re not doing well on the inside,” said study co-author Alexander Bond, a senior curator at the Natural History Museum in London. “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.”

The researchers discovered this disease in flesh-footed shearwaters on Lord Howe Island, an island located 600 kilometers off the coast of Australia. These birds consume large amounts of plastics from the sea after mistaking it for food. Repeated ingestion of plastics leads to scarring of the proventriculus – the first chamber of the birds’ stomachs – and, as plastic exposure increases, the tissue becomes increasingly swollen until it begins to break down.

“The tubular glands, which secrete digestive compounds, are perhaps the best example of the impact of plasticosis,” Bond explained. “When plastic is consumed, these glands get gradually more stunted until they eventually lose their tissue structure entirely at the highest levels of exposure.”

The condition causes birds to be more vulnerable to infections and parasites, and diminishes their ability to absorb some vitamins. In addition, plasticosis can also cause the stomach to become hardened and less flexible, making it less effective at digesting food. This can be extremely harmful particularly for young birds and chicks – which often consume food containing plastic particles fed to them by their parents – sometimes making them starve to death as their stomachs fill up with plastic they cannot digest. 

Although, so far, this disease is only known to affect the digestive system, scientists suggest that it may also have an impact on other parts of the body, such as the lungs.

Until now, this disease has only been documented in a single bird species. However, given the amount of plastic pollution worldwide, it is likely that it affects other species too. Further research is needed to assess the prevalence of this condition, while measures to curb plastic pollution should be urgently taken in order to safeguard the health of a variety of animal species, including humans.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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