Plastics have been making the headlines in many parts of the world – from seafood containing plastics, impacts of plastic on marine wildlife to plastic bag bans.

At home, our study’s findings made the headlines in numerous media outlets – Nanoplastics accumulate in marine organisms and may pose risks to aquatic food chains. Our paper was published in March 2018in ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, and here is the Abstract:


What were the study’s key findings?

Firstly, we designated two treatment levels in this experiment: ‘Acute‘ refers to high dosage short duration exposure and ‘Chronic‘ refers to low dosage persistent exposure to either chemicals or pollutants.

After exposing the barnacle larvae to nanoplastics in either treatments, the team found that the larvae had not only consumed the particles, but were found to translocate within the larvae’s body and persist throughout their growth stages. Even though their waste matter and moults showed presence of nanoplastics (i.e. suggesting pathways for removal of particles), the larvae’s main body still contained nanoplastics.

This demonstrates that the nanoplastics could accumulate in the body over time, and potentially be easily transferred up the food chain (leading to humans who sits at the top of such food chains!).

Why should people care about the fate of nanoplastics in marine life?

It is estimated that the oceans may already contain over 150 million tonnes of plastics, and each year, about eight million tonnes of plastics enter the oceans. Given that plastics are omnipresent in the oceans, marine organisms are likely to already be exposed to tiny plastic particles. Hence, through this study, we want to understand how marine life interact with tiny plastics and if there may be long-term impacts on the food chain.

Besides the direct impact through the food chain, plastics can also soak up pollutants and chemicals in the aquatic environments, and they may become transferred to the organisms if the particles are consumed. Humans are part of the larger food chain, as we rely on the oceans for seafood and other resources, thus posing risks to human health.

What is the next step of the study?

Our research team will be continuing the work to look at how these small plastic particles affect the physiology and reproductive effort of other marine invertebrate models such as tubeworms and sea urchins. Ultimately, we want to lead the study towards identifying possible impacts on human health.

What can ordinary people do?

We live in the ‘Age of Plastics‘, where this man-made material has provided convenience to our daily lives. While it is difficult to get rid of plastics from modern day usage, the team emphasises that waste management is utmost important – do not let more plastic waste enter our aquatic systems in the first place.

This includes no littering, and where possible, practice 4Rs – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. If you do not require disposable plastics, you can say no!

Mr Samarth Bhargava and Ms Serina Lee are members of an NUS research team that found that nanoplastics are easily ingested by barnacle larvae and accumulate in their bodies over time. (Photo: National University of Singapore)

Finally, a shout out to my fellow colleagues, who had worked very hard on this project – Samarth and Serina! Also thank you, Carolyn and Yong Jie for putting together the media kit.

Links to the various news media features in Singapore:

Photo 1-6-18, 8 26 43 AM
The Straits Times featuring our research paper.