Image via UConn by Peg Van Patten
We know plastic pollution in the oceans is causing problems among marine life, including becoming a food source that is anything but nourishing. Plastic pieces are snapped up as food by birds, fish, turtles and other wildlife, only to eventually kill them -- as well as work farther up the food chain as larger animals eat smaller ones that have ingested plastics. But this is far from the only impact plastics are having on ocean wildlife. Even crustaceans are feeling the pain of foreign chemicals. Molecular biologist Hans Laufer, of the University of Connecticut, has discovered that waterborne chemicals leached from plastics and detergents seem to contribute to "shell disease," which has caused huge dieoffs among lobsters of Long Island Sound during the past ten years.According to University of Connecticut, after three years and $3 million invested in a research initiative, Laufer found that chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) are interfering with growth hormones in young lobsters, slowing their molting patterns and changing their development, which then leads to deformations, susceptibility to disease, and for many, death. This seems to explain a huge lobster dieoff that began in the late 1990s, bringing lobster catches to about 1/6 of their 1998 levels.
Hot spots in the Sound where lobsters have high levels of alkylphenols (chemicals from detergents, plastics and paints) were discovered, as well as the fact that the lobsters are absorbing the chemicals through their food source -- water-filtering clams and mussels that are taking in the chemicals leached from landfills and water treatment facilities. Of the 1 million or so pounds of BPA produced annually, 60% makes it to the ocean.
According to UConn, "In the laboratory, Laufer has also shown that moderate levels of chemicals can double the amount of time it takes for a lobster to molt its shell and to create a hardened new shell. During this time, the lobsters' thin skin is more vulnerable to pathogens, such as the bacteria that cause shell disease. By increasing the length of this vulnerable period, the ocean-borne chemicals effectively increase the chances that a lobster will get sick."
Compounding the problem is the fact that lobsters molt more often when they have shell disease, which means even more opportunity of contracting diseases and storing up harmful chemicals. Additionally, they'll molt while carrying eggs under their shells, killing the potential offspring and further lowering populations. Between this and the thickening of their shells caused by ocean acidification, lobsters are feeling the heat of human activity.
Laufer states that the only way we can save lobsters and other marine life potentially harmed by the chemicals is to simply reduce our use of them -- cut down the 60,000 pounds of BPA that heads to the oceans and minimize the harm its doing to marine animals. The EPA has already acknowledged the 1 million pounds released into the environment, but is only just beginning to measure its impact on groundwater, and the agency is still far away from making any sort of recommendation for companies to quit using the chemical, which is found not only in plastics but also canned and other packaged foods -- and even cash register receipts. Still, other advocacy groups are working hard to make companies -- and the government -- take responsibility for the incredibly harmful chemical.
Follow Jaymi on Twitter for more stories like this
More on Marine Plastic Pollution
How Safe Is Your Beach? NRDC's Latest Report Reveals Marine Health
The Atlantic Gets Its Own Great Plastic Garbage Patch
How Biomimicry Inspired Creating A Ship from 12,000 Plastic Bottles (Videos)
The Pacific Trash Vortex Explained (Video News)