Plastics and microplastics in the oceans: From emerging pollutants to emerged threat
Plastic production has increased dramatically worldwide over the last 60 years and it is nowadays recognized as a serious threat to the marine environment. Plastic pollution is ubiquitous, but quantitative estimates on the global abundance and weight of floating plastics are still limited, particularly for the Southern Hemisphere and the more remote regions. Some large-scale convergence zones of plastic debris have been identified, but there is the urgency to standardize common methodologies to measure and quantify plastics in seawater and sediments. Investigations on temporal trends, geographical distribution and global cycle of plastics have management implications when defining the origin, possible drifting tracks and ecological consequences of such pollution. An elevated number of marine species is known to be affected by plastic contamination, and a more integrated ecological risk assessment of these materials has become a research priority. Beside entanglement and ingestion of macro debris by large vertebrates, microplastics are accumulated by planktonic and invertebrate organisms, being transferred along food chains. Negative consequences include loss of nutritional value of diet, physical damages, exposure to pathogens and transport of alien species. In addition, plastics contain chemical additives and efficiently adsorb several environmental contaminants, thus representing a potential source of exposure to such compounds after ingestion. Complex ecotoxicological effects are increasingly reported, but the fate and impact of microplastics in the marine environment are still far to be fully clarified.
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