Marine plastic pollution among the top marine-related threats of public concern

In a large-scale survey, researchers found that the impacts of marine plastic pollution on human health is now ranked amid the top health-related concerns over marine threats.

Marine Plastic Pollution. Image Credit: Rich Carey/Shutterstock.com

Rising concern related to the effects of marine plastic pollution on human health

A new study published in Global Environmental Change found that both Europeans and Australians were highly concerned about the human health impact of marine plastic pollution.

Impacts of marine plastic pollution now rank among the top of 16 marine-related threats in terms of cause for concern, including chemical or oil spills, marine biodiversity loss, and climate change-related effects such as the sea-level rise and ocean acidification.

The study was led by researchers at the University of Exeter as part of the interdisciplinary European collaboration called the Seas, Oceans and Public Health in Europe (SOPHIE) Project, funded by Horizons 2020. Data from surveys of over 15,000 people across 14 European countries, plus Australia, was gathered alongside colleagues from the European Marine Board, the University of Vienna, and the University of Queensland.

The SOPHIE project provides particularly insightful findings as it relates to the public perceptions towards various marine topics, including marine plastic pollution, and how it affects human life.

Plastic pollution is gaining increasing interest due to the extensive consequences it has on marine life. Microplastics in particular, which are microscopic plastic particles, have been found in all sea life sampled, from the Arctic Ocean to the bottom of the Marianna Trench. Particles have been found across taxonomic groups as well, from oysters and mussels to small fish and sharks.

This means that humans are likely to ingest particles themselves, as consumption of seafood, or product derived from seafood, is consumed frequently across all regions of the globe. Nevertheless, despite the awareness of ecological impacts, little is known of the potential impacts of plastic particles on human health.

Plastic pollution is one of the fastest-growing environmental challenges on our planet. Yet, while the damage to marine life is well understood, the impact on human health remains unclear. Our study indicates that this is of grave concern to the public and that there’s widespread support for more research in this area.”


Sophie Davison, University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health

Indeed, through the use of surveys, the present study found that people surveyed supported more research to understand the impact of marine plastic pollution on our health. Across surveyed populations, marine plastic pollution ranked among the top 16 marine-related threats.

A need for more research, education, and prevention

These findings echo the results from a recent survey of 8,000 people conducted by the Government’s Department for the environment, food and rural Affairs, which found that 75% of respondents felt that plastic pollution and litter was the greatest threat to the health of the seas, and 94% of people believe the health of oceans and humans are inextricably linked.

As such, the responses of both surveys show a public consensus on the increasing concern related to the impacts of marine plastic pollution, echoing the worrying findings of the present study.

Co-author Mathew White, an environmental psychologist at the University of Vienna, said the paper aimed to inform decision-making around policy on plastic pollution and funding for research into potential human health impacts.

Given that marine plastic pollution is a global challenge and all of society contributes to some degree to the plastic consumption cycle, we urgently need to and ways of connecting the high level of concern with ways of curbing the leakage of plastic into the environment.”

Research efforts on the ecological impacts of plastic pollution, therefore, need to be matched by environmental surveys of plastics in seafood and clinical trials following ingestion to determine the risk and consequences to human health. Future studies could also consider the different sizes and types of particles. This is of particular importance as microplastics are not alone among harmful particles, as nanoparticles represent even smaller particles that can cross cellular membrane barriers.

Journal reference:

  • Davison, S.M.C., White, M.P., Pahl, S., Taylor, T., Fielding, K., Roberts, B.R., Economou, T., McMeel, O., Kellett, P. and Fleming, L.E. (2021). Public concern about, and desire for research into, the human health effects of marine plastic pollution: Results from a 15-country survey across Europe and Australia. Global Environmental Change, p.102309.

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