Seabirds that eat plastic—and live—have major health problems

One of the only studies looking at the health effects of plastic ingestion on living seabirds finds that a few pieces wreak havok.

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Albatrosses and shearwaters eat sardines tossed from a vessel.

Seabirds that ingest any amount of plastic have significant health troubles, a new study has found. Most research on the impacts of plastic on marine lifehas been focused on mortality; this is one of the first on the non-lethal impacts of plastic on living creatures.

The young birds in the study had impaired kidney function and raised cholesterol levels, plus reduced body mass, wing length, head and bill length.

“A seabird might look fine but it can’t tell you it’s unwell or suffering,” says Jennifer Lavers of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at University of Tasmania in Australia. Lavers is lead author of the study in Environmental Science & Technology looking at the non-lethal impacts of plastic ingestion.

“We decided to treat them like humans and do a blood panel to find out how they’re doing,” Lavers says in an interview.

Seabirds are not doing well in general. They are declining faster than any other bird group and plastics in the oceans are believed to be one cause.

“Seabirds are the canary in the coal mine for the...

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