Toxic Chemicals Leach from Plastic, Harm Sea Creatures

Here is more scientific evidence that the human penchant for plastic is doing significant harm to the oceans and the creatures that live there.  In this case, it is not so much the plastics themselves doing harm, but the toxic chemicals leaching out of the plastics.  More specifically, a new scientific study indicates that plastics in the ocean can release toxic chemicals that cause deformities in sea urchin larvae.

“Many plastics are treated with chemicals for a variety of purposes, such as making them mold-able or flame retardant. If such plastics find their way to the oceans, these chemicals can leach out into the water.

“Plastics can also pick up and transport chemicals and other environmental contaminants, potentially spreading them through the oceans.”

-Dr. Eva Jimenez-Guri, researcher, Centre for Ecology and Conservation

Study overview

Scientists soaked various plastic samples in seawater then removed the plastic and raised sea urchin embryos in the water.  Each plastic type was soaked in seawater for 72 hours, then the plastic was removed.

Analysis of the water showed all samples contained chemicals known to be detrimental to development of animals, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls.

Results overview

Water from the different kinds of plastic affected urchin development in slightly different ways, though all sample types led to deformity of skeletons and nervous systems, and caused problems with gastrulation (when embryos begin to take shape).

Control group: The study also raised urchin embryos in water that had contained “virgin” polyethylene particles that had not been treated with additive chemicals or collected any environmental pollutants.  These urchins developed normally, suggesting that abnormalities observed in other samples were caused by industrial additives and/or environmentally adsorbed contaminants — rather than the base plastics themselves.


sea urchin

The study results indicate that urchins exposed to toxic chemicals leached from plastic developed a variety of abnormalities, including deformed skeletons and nervous systems.  These abnormalities were caused by chemicals embedded in the plastics leaching out into the water, rather than the plastics themselves.

The findings raise questions about the wider impact of plastic contaminants on marine life.

“We are learning more and more about how ingesting plastic affects marine animals. However, little is known about the effects of exposure to chemicals that leach into the water from plastic particles.

“This study provides evidence that contamination of the marine environment with plastic could have direct implications for the development of larvae, with potential impacts on wider ecosystems.

“Our work contributes to the growing evidence that we all need to help reduce the amount of plastic contamination released into our natural environment, to ensure healthy and productive ecosystems for future generations.”

-Dr. Flora Rendell-Bhatti, researcher, Centre for Ecology and Conservation, Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall

Journal Reference:  Flora Rendell-Bhatti, Periklis Paganos, Anna Pouch, Christopher Mitchell, Salvatore D’Aniello, Brendan J. Godley, Ksenia Pazdro, Maria Ina Arnone, Eva Jimenez-Guri. Developmental toxicity of plastic leachates on the sea urchin Paracentrotus lividus. Environmental Pollution, 2020; 115744.   DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2020.115744