Exfoliating scrubs join list of plastics harming whales

Particles are found in stomachs of dead marine life
By Jasper Hamill, Sunday Herald 9 Mar 08;

WHALES AND dolphins may be under threat from the tiny pieces of plastic found in exfoliating facial scrubs.

Researchers associated with the University of Aberdeen have been investigating the effect of plastic on marine life, and have found not only that plastic bags are implicated in the deaths of many beached whales but also that small grains may be as dangerous.

Many undersea creatures are affected, from turtles to sharks, who ingest plastic which then either chokes them or affects their ability to digest food, both of which can lead to death.

Adrian Shephard, a campaigner at conservation charity Marine Life, said: "The supermarkets are the primary culprits. They're giving away these plastic bags which wash out to sea. There isn't a piece of ocean that's not contaminated.

"These micro pieces of plastic they have in things like facial scrubs, which are used as the hard parts to do the exfoliation on people's skin, are also dangerous. They get rinsed off, flow down the sinks and into the ocean, where they end up in the food chain."

Dr Colin MacLeod, research fellow at Aberdeen University, who is an expert in beached whales, said that in 50% of animals washed up, plastic is implicated.

He said: "There was a new species of whale discovered in 1991, called the Peruvian beaked whale. The original scientific paper that wrote about the species mentioned it had a plastic bag wedged in its throat. So even before we knew the species existed, we were affecting it with plastic bags.

"We assume that humans don't have an effect on parts of the ocean far away from shore. But we've started realising that plastic is everywhere in the ocean."

He is supervising a PhD student working on the effect of plastic on Cuvier's beaked whales, one of which washed up on the shores of Mull in January. Only two have been spotted off the coast of Scotland in the past 25 years.

Plastic is particularly dangerous to them, because they feed on squid and mistake bags for prey, sucking them up. The bags then become lodged and suffocate them. The plastic can accumulate in the whale's stomach and stop them being able to absorb nutrients from food.

Jackie Smith, who is working from Southampton University under the guidance of Dr MacLeod, has taken a ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao, Spain, more than 40 times, to see how widespread the plastic pollution is.

She said: "We are seeing plastic bags all the time, particularly in the ports. Stomach analysis of whales has revealed there has been a lot of plastic ingested."

Supermarkets have been anxious to prove their green credentials, after a vigorous public campaign to ban plastic carrier bags. Boots has pledged to consider any new research.

Kevin Marriot, Boots's quality and customer service relations manager, said: "We are constantly looking for ways to minimise our impact on the environment. We would welcome the opportunity to review any evidence that plastic material from exfoliating scrubs is damaging wildlife and we would of course consider alternative materials if this is the case."

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