A team of researchers has discovered a new disease specifically caused by plastic parts in certain seabirds. The disease, known as “plasticosis” (English original: “plasticosis”), has been identified for the first time, but this may only be “the tip of the iceberg”, said the London Natural History Museum. Pale-footed shearwaters from Australia’s Lord Howe Island were studied.

Instead of being caused by viruses or bacteria, the disease is caused by small pieces of plastic that lead to inflammation in the digestive tract, according to the museum. Over time, such prolonged and repeated inflammation would lead to scarring and tissue deformation, which in turn would affect the animals’ growth, digestion and survival, the researchers write. In some chicks, the worst-case scenario is that the disease can cause the birds to starve because their stomachs fill up with indigestible plastic.

Possible impact on humans

Curator and bird expert Alex Bond, who published his findings with colleagues in the “Journal of Hazardous Materials”, said according to a statement from the museum: “It is the first time that stomach tissue has been examined in this way and it can be shown that that eating plastic can severely damage the digestive systems of these birds.” The disease is believed to occur in other species as well. Impacts on human health are also possible.

Bond and his colleagues have been studying seabirds on Australia’s Lord Howe Island, some 600 kilometers off the coast of the continent, for the past few years. They also found that the local pale-footed shearwaters are among the most plastic-contaminated birds in the world. They mistake plastic parts for food and eat them consciously. This also led the team to look more closely at the effects on the digestive tract.