Potential for plastics to transport hydrophobic contaminants

Emma L Teuten, Steven J Rowland, Tamara S Galloway, Richard C Thompson
Environmental Science & Technology 2007 November 15, 41 (22): 7759-64
Plastic debris litters marine and terrestrial habitats worldwide. It is ingested by numerous species of animals, causing deleterious physical effects. High concentrations of hydrophobic organic contaminants have also been measured on plastic debris collected from the environment, but the fate of these contaminants is poorly understood. Here, we examine the uptake and subsequent release of phenanthrene by three plastics. Equilibrium distribution coefficients for sorption of phenanthrene from seawater onto the plastics varied by more than an order of magnitude (polyethylene > polypropylene > polyvinyl chloride (PVC)). In all cases, sorption to plastics greatly exceeded sorption to two natural sediments. Desorption rates of phenanthrene from the plastics or sediments back into solution spanned several orders of magnitude. As expected, desorption occurred more rapidly from the sediments than from the plastics. Using the equilibrium partitioning method, the effects of adding very small quantities of plastic with sorbed phenanthrene to sediment inhabited by the lugworm (Arenicola marina) were evaluated. We estimate that the addition of as little as 1 microg of contaminated polyethylene to a gram of sediment would give a significant increase in phenanthrene accumulation by A. marina. Thus, plastics may be important agents in the transport of hydrophobic contaminants to sediment-dwelling organisms.

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