Plastic chemicals discovered inside bird eggs from remote Arctic

‘We are finding multiple plastic derived contaminants that are maternally transferred to the egg. It’s really tragic’

Josh Gabbatiss
Washington DC
Sunday 17 February 2019 23:00
Comments
Scientists studied the eggs of northern fulmars from an Arctic island in Canada’s Lancaster Sound
Scientists studied the eggs of northern fulmars from an Arctic island in Canada’s Lancaster Sound

Chemicals from plastics have been found inside the eggs of seabirds living in remote Arctic colonies, in the latest sign of pollution contaminating the furthest reaches of the planet.

Scientists were concerned by the traces of phthalates, hormone-disrupting chemicals that have been banned from children’s toys due to their potential “gender-bending” effects.

These substances are routinely applied to many plastic products, and probably came from the bottle tops and cigarette butts these seabirds often eat after mistaking them for food.

The eggs were taken from northern fulmars living on an island in Lancaster Sound, more than 100 miles away from the nearest human settlement.

In a preliminary study, Dr Jennifer Provencher of the Canadian Wildlife Service tested the eggs of five fulmars and found phthalates in one, but warned the problem is likely to be far more pervasive.

“These are some of the birds who have the lowest levels of accumulated plastic,” explained Dr Provencher.

If fulmar colonies were tested in the North Sea, where levels of plastic consumption are far higher, she said the results could be far more dramatic.

“Now the thing is to look at other populations and to see if they have the same chemicals, or other chemicals,” she said.

In another study, Dr Provencher and her colleagues examined the eggs of both fulmars and black-legged kittiwakes, and found traces of more chemicals known as UV stabilisers and antioxidants.

“We are finding multiple plastic-derived contaminants that are maternally transferred to the egg,” she said.

“It’s really tragic.”

Once the birds have consumed plastic items, they are often too big to pass through their digestive systems meaning they sit in their stomachs, leaching out chemicals which can pass into developing eggs.

Discussing her early-stage work at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC, Dr Provencher said it was now important to establish how widespread this problem is – and whether the chemicals were causing the birds harm.

Dr Alex Bond, a conservation biologist from the Natural History Museum who was not involved in the work, said this data provided “another example of the often-invisible impacts that plastics can have on wildlife”.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

“It may not be enough to result in mortality, but it’s certainly not a positive thing.”

Experts are concerned not only by the deadly impact of plastic as it chokes or ruptures the stomach of animals that eat it, but by the various “sub-lethal” effects as well.

Recent work has suggested that chemicals from plastics may even be changing animals’ behaviour, making them more vulnerable to attack.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in