Scientists warn of new ocean pollution threat called ‘plastitar’

Some of them are sounding the alarm bell now to try to stop the problem from getting worse. (KGO, CALIFORNIA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, GOOGLE EARTH, NOAA, CNN)
Published: Jun. 15, 2022 at 10:11 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 15, 2022 at 10:52 AM EDT
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SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) - Scientists are worried two forms of ocean pollution are joining together to form a sort of super pollution.

Some of them are sounding the alarm now to try to stop the problem from getting worse.

For years, environmental groups have warned of the dangers from microplastics reaching San Francisco Bay.

Microscopic fragments often break off from the kinds of plastic trash found washing up on beaches.

Peter Roopnarine with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco said taken together, plastics and microplastics present a significant threat to marine life and the coastal environment.

“We’re finding them everywhere. We’re finding them in high concentrations in the open ocean,” Roopnarine said.

But now, researchers believe plastics are combining with a second substance, oil, to create a different form of pollution.

In a small study, a team on the Canary Islands documented dangerous microplastics embedded in oily tar balls created from spills or oil leaking from ships or pipelines.

It’s a combination being dubbed “plastitar.”

Roopnarine said the micro spills are common around the world.

“So anything that any process that can aggregate these small particles, which we know dense petroleum can, is going to aggregate microplastics,” Roopnarine said.

One concern is that once the fragments are embedded on a beach or coastline, they could degrade even further, finding their way into the food chain and marine environment.

“So we have a lot of ships coming and going. And they’re coming and going through some of the most biodiverse waters in the world,” Jennifer Stack said. “So we are always looking to how to best take care of these waters to prevent oil spills from happening.”

Stack is with the Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries. The group organizes volunteers who routinely monitor the Bay Area coastline for signs of spilled oil that could threaten wildlife.

So far, researchers say it’s unclear if the “plastitar” phenomenon is limited to the Canary Islands or how widespread it may be.

But they said it could be viewed as a red flag for the dual threat to the oceans from microplastics and industrial pollution.

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