Dangerous viruses can survive and remain infectious in freshwater by ‘hitchhiking’ onto plastics, according to a new study.

Source: Down To Earth/Youtube

The paper published in the journal Environmental Pollution found that intestinal viruses such as rotavirus remained infectious for up to three days by attaching to microplastics. Enteric viruses that cause diarrhea and upset stomachs were found to survive by attaching to these microplastics that are less than 5mm long in size. They remain infectious, which poses a large threat to public health.

Professor Richard Quilliam, the lead researcher on the project, said, “We found that viruses can attach to microplastics and that allows them to survive in the water for three days, possibly longer.”

Although research has been conducted in sterile environments, this is the first research into how viruses behave in the environment, according to Quilliam. The team of researchers at the University of Stirling used standard laboratory methods to see if viruses on microplastics they found in waterways were infectious.

“We weren’t sure how well viruses could survive by ‘hitchhiking’ on plastic in the environment, but they do survive and they do remain infectious,” he said.

The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, which wanted to look at how plastics transport bacteria and viruses. They concluded that microplastics enabled pathogen transfer in the environment.

“Being infectious in the environment for three days, that’s long enough to get from the wastewater treatment works to the public beach,” Quilliam said.

He adds that wastewater treatment plants are unable to catch microplastics.

“Even if a wastewater treatment plant is doing everything it can to clean sewage waste, the water discharged still has microplastics in it, which are then transported down the river, into the estuary and wind up on the beach.”

These microplastics are also dangerous to swimmers and those who use the water. They can easily be swallowed by swimmers or fish that will later be consumed.

“Sometimes they wash up on the beach as lentil-sized, brightly coloured pellets called nurdles that children might pick up and put in their mouths. It doesn’t take many virus particles to make you sick,” Quilliam said.

Globally, we produce 300 million tons of plastic every year, 78 percent of which is NOT reclaimed or recycled. Around  8.8 million tons of plastic get dumped into the oceans every year! 700 marine animals are faced with extinction due to the threat that plastic poses to them in the form of entanglement, pollution, and ingestion. 50 percent of sea turtles have plastic in their stomachs. By 2050, 99 percent of all seabird species will have ingested plastic waste. According to a study by the World Economic Forum, there will be one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish by 2025, and if things go on business as usual, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.

Read more about how companies like Facebook, Tupperware, Google, Dove,  Budweiser, Carlsberg, and FIJI Water are working towards reducing plastic pollution. Places around the world like Tel Aviv, California, Baltimore, Scotland, and many more are banning various single-use plastics, and others are coming up with creative ways to recycle and use plastic waste.

There are products you may be using or habits you may have that contribute to plastic pollution. Learn more about how the use of Teabags, Cotton Swabs, Laundry, Contact Lenses, Glitter, and Sheet Masks pollute our oceans so you can make more informed decisions going forward. There are also numerous simple actions and switches that can help cut plastic out of our lives including, making your own cosmetics, shampoo, toothpaste, soap, household cleaners, using mason jars, reusable bags/bottles/straws, and avoiding microbeads!

To learn more about the impact of plastic waste, please read the articles below: 

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