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Eating Shellfish Likely Means Eating Plastic, Scientists Say

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The amount of plastic in our oceans—and thus in our seafood—is rising. The authors of a forthcoming study say Europeans alone ingest about 11,000 microscopic pieces of plastic apiece every year. And unless we make some very big changes, that number could reach 780,000 pieces per person within a few decades.

Microplastics, also known as microbeads, are popular additives to a wide range of personal care products, from face wash to toothpaste. We rinse them off and send them down the drain, where they head out into the water supply. And there they’ll stay, absorbing chemicals, until something or somebody comes along and eats them.

Studies have found that fish that consume microbeads are smaller than others. They reject real food in favor of more plastic. Their eggs are less likely to hatch, and hatchlings are less likely to escape predators.

Researchers at the University of Ghent in Belgium have been studying the effects of microplastics on shellfish like mussels, oysters, and clams, all of which are filter feeders. The average mussel sucks in and spits out about 20 liters of water per day. Most of the plastic particles in that water will be filtered and sent back out into the ocean. Most, but not all; lead researcher Colin Janssen says the mussels they examined had an average of one tiny plastic fragment apiece.

Janssen and his colleagues say the same process occurs in humans who consume shellfish. About 99 percent of the microplastic will pass through your system. That still leaves 1 percent to stay in the body, and we don’t yet know what that means for our health.

“We do need to know the fate of the plastics,” Janssen told Sky News. “Where do they go? Are they encapsulated by tissue and forgotten about by the body, or are they causing inflammation or doing other things? Are chemicals leaching out of these plastics and then causing toxicity? We don't know."

Experts estimate we’re currently dumping one garbage truck’s worth of microplastic into the ocean every minute. By 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the sea [PDF]. We’ve started to take some steps—in 2016, Congress voted to ban microbeads altogether—but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

"We have to do something about it,” Janssen said. “We have to act now."

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Philippe Huguen, AFP/Getty Images
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McDonald's May Be Getting Rid of Its Plastic Straws
Philippe Huguen, AFP/Getty Images
Philippe Huguen, AFP/Getty Images

First Seattle and then the Queen. Could the Golden Arches be next to join the anti-straw movement? As Fortune reports, McDonald's shareholders will vote at their annual meeting on May 24 on a proposal to phase out drinking straws at the company's 37,000-plus locations in the U.S.

If passed, the fast food behemoth would join the ranks of other governments and businesses around the world that have enacted bans against straws in an effort to reduce plastic waste. Straws are notoriously hard to recycle and typically take hundreds of years to decompose.

McDonald's is currently in the process of removing plastic straws from its roughly 1300 outlets in the UK. However, McDonald's board of directors opposes the move in the U.S., arguing that it would divert money from the company's other eco-friendly initiatives, The Orange County Register reports. This echoes comments from the plastic industry, which says efforts should instead be focused on improving recycling technologies.

"Bans are overly simplistic and may give consumers a false sense of accomplishment without addressing the problem of litter," Scott DeFife of the Plastics Industry Association told the Daily News in New York City, where the city council is mulling a similar citywide ban.

If the city votes in favor of a ban, they'd be following in the footsteps of Seattle, Miami Beach, and Malibu, California, to name a few. In February, Queen Elizabeth II was inspired to ban straws at royal palaces after working with David Attenborough on a conservation film. Prime Minister Theresa May followed suit, announcing in April that the UK would ban plastic straws, cotton swabs, and other single-use plastic items.

It's unclear how many straws are used in the U.S. By one widely reported estimate, Americans use 500 million disposable straws per day—or 1.6 straws per person—but it has been noted that these statistics are based on a survey conducted by an elementary school student. However, plastic straws are the fifth most common type of trash left on beaches, according to data reported by Fortune.

[h/t Fortune]

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Mario Tama, Getty Images
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Hawaii's Kilauea Volcano Is Causing Another Explosive Problem: Laze
Mario Tama, Getty Images
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Rivers of molten rock aren't the only thing residents near Hawaii's Kilauea volcano have to worry about. Lava from recent volcanic activity has reached the Pacific Ocean and is generating toxic, glass-laced "laze," according to Honolulu-based KITV. Just what is this dangerous substance?

Molten lava has a temperature of about 2000°F, while the surrounding seawater in Hawaii is closer to 80°F. When this super-hot lava hits the colder ocean, the heat makes the water boil, creating powerful explosions of steam, scalding hot water, and projectile rock fragments known as tephra. These plumes are called lava haze, or laze.

Though it looks like regular steam, laze is much more dangerous. When the water and lava combine, and hot lava vaporizes seawater, a series of reactions causes the formation of toxic gas. Chloride from the sea salt mixes with hydrogen in the steam to create a dense, corrosive mixture of hydrochloric acid. The vapor forms clouds that then turn into acid rain.

Laze blows out of the ocean near a lava flow
USGS

That’s not the only danger. The lava cools down rapidly, forming volcanic glass—tiny shards of which explode into the air along with the gases.

Even the slightest encounter with a wisp of laze can be problematic. The hot, acidic mixture can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. It's particularly hazardous to those with breathing problems, like people with asthma.

In 2000, two people died in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from inhaling laze coming from an active lava flow.

The problem spreads far beyond where the lava itself is flowing, pushing the problem downwind. Due to the amount of lava flowing into the ocean and the strength of the winds, laze currently being generated by the Kilauea eruptions could spread up to 15 miles away, a USGS geologist told Reuters.

[h/t Forbes]

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