Plastic contamination has been discovered in seabird eggs in the High Arctic. Another worrying sign that synthetic materials are penetrating ever deeper into mother nature. Researchers found chemicals that are used in plastics processing, in the eggs of Northern Fulmars, all the way up in the Canadian Arctic. It would appear that the associated chemicals had leached from plastic ingested by the mother bird, which had then passed it into the yolk of her eggs.
The synthetic materials, known as phthalates, form part of a class of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors. These chemicals have been found to interfere with hormonal development in wildlife by mimicking estrogen or testosterone. Researchers say that it is too early to know whether or not they are causing harm in eggs. However, researchers are concerned that it could be causing harm and are worried that the chemicals are even there in the first place. Phthalates have been found to feminize fish – creating ‘intersex’ fish, which can result in male fish growing eggs.
Researcher Dr Jennifer Provencher (head of wildlife at the Canadian Wildlife Service) finds it tragic that she is finding multiple plastic derived contaminants that are maternally transferred to the egg. Endocrine disruptors are not good. They can interrupt hormonal development and cause deformations.
When a female bird is forming eggs, all the nutrients – the good and the bad – goes into those eggs. If that egg has chemicals in its yolk sac, then that bird, from the very beginning of its development, is feeding on those contaminants. Recognising that at least some of these types of contaminants are going into eggs opens the door to asking further questions.
Birds in the Arctic tend to have the lowest level of accumulated plastic of all the birds that researchers look at. Research has shown that the birds with the highest levels are based in the north sea. The eggs were collected by Canada’s indigenous Inuit population in the remote High Arctic region of Lancaster Sound, 200 Km from the nearest town.
The findings have concerned other experts. Lyndsey Dodds (head of UK marine policy at WWF) is concerned that a throwaway culture is strangling the natural world with plastic, choking the oceans and harming wildlife. Alex Bond (a biologist at the Natural History Museum in London) underlined that 90 percent of the world’s sea birds have fragments of plastic in their stomachs, so hearing even their eggs are not immune from the plastic plague,is terrible news. It’s another example of the often invisible impacts that plastics can have on wildlife. It might not result in mortality, but it contributes to the increased threats that many of the world’s seabirds face.