Microplastic moves pollutants and additives to worms, reducing functions linked to health and biodiversity

Curr Biol. 2013 Dec 2;23(23):2388-92. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.10.012.


Inadequate products, waste management, and policy are struggling to prevent plastic waste from infiltrating ecosystems [1, 2]. Disintegration into smaller pieces means that the abundance of micrometer-sized plastic (microplastic) in habitats has increased [3] and outnumbers larger debris [2, 4]. When ingested by animals, plastic provides a feasible pathway to transfer attached pollutants and additive chemicals into their tissues [5-15]. Despite positive correlations between concentrations of ingested plastic and pollutants in tissues of animals, few, if any, controlled experiments have examined whether ingested plastic transfers pollutants and additives to animals. We exposed lugworms (Arenicola marina) to sand with 5% microplastic that was presorbed with pollutants (nonylphenol and phenanthrene) and additive chemicals (Triclosan and PBDE-47). Microplastic transferred pollutants and additive chemicals into gut tissues of lugworms, causing some biological effects, although clean sand transferred larger concentrations of pollutants into their tissues. Uptake of nonylphenol from PVC or sand reduced the ability of coelomocytes to remove pathogenic bacteria by >60%. Uptake of Triclosan from PVC diminished the ability of worms to engineer sediments and caused mortality, each by >55%, while PVC alone made worms >30% more susceptible to oxidative stress. As global microplastic contamination accelerates, our findings indicate that large concentrations of microplastic and additives can harm ecophysiological functions performed by organisms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biodiversity
  • Eating
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / physiology
  • Geologic Sediments
  • Halogenated Diphenyl Ethers / pharmacology
  • Intestinal Absorption / physiology*
  • Oxidative Stress / drug effects
  • Phenanthrenes / pharmacology
  • Phenols / pharmacology
  • Plastics / pharmacology*
  • Polychaeta / drug effects*
  • Polychaeta / immunology
  • Polyvinyl Chloride / pharmacology*
  • Refuse Disposal
  • Silicon Dioxide
  • Tissue Distribution
  • Triclosan / pharmacology
  • Water Pollutants / pharmacology*


  • Halogenated Diphenyl Ethers
  • Phenanthrenes
  • Phenols
  • Plastics
  • Water Pollutants
  • 2,2',4,4'-tetrabromodiphenyl ether
  • phenanthrene
  • Triclosan
  • Silicon Dioxide
  • nonylphenol
  • Polyvinyl Chloride