Fish started swallowing plastic in the 1950’s … matching the growth of our plastics industry ever since


A strand of microplastic from museum fish/Loren Hou

Forget diamonds–plastic is forever. It takes decades, or even centuries, for plastic to break down, and nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists in some form today … To learn how these microplastics have built up over the past century, researchers examined the guts of freshwater fish preserved in museum collections; they found that fish have been swallowing microplastics since the 1950s and that the concentration of microplastics in their guts has increased over time…

Tim Hoellein and his graduate student Loren Hou were interested in examining the buildup of microplastics in freshwater fish from the Chicagoland region. They reached out to Caleb McMahan, an ichthyologist at the Field Museum, who helped identify four common fish species that the museum had chronological records of dating back to 1900: largemouth bass, channel catfish, sand shiners, and round gobies. Specimens from the Illinois Natural History Survey and University of Tennessee also filled in sampling gaps…

The researchers found that the amount of microplastics present in the fishes’ guts rose dramatically over time as more plastic was manufactured and built up in the ecosystem. There were no plastic particles before mid-century, but when plastic manufacturing was industrialized in the 1950s, the concentrations skyrocketed.

“We found that the load of microplastics in the guts of these fishes have basically gone up with the levels of plastic production,” says McMahan. “It’s the same pattern of what they’re finding in marine sediments, it follows the general trend that plastic is everywhere.”

Another stream of pollution contributing to the general poisoning of portions of the whole ecosystem we live within. Why we now have a field of medical practice called environmental medicine. Researchers get to examine air, water, soil and food … and how our industries can make these dangerous.

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