What the Hong Kong Plastic Pellet Spill Means for Marine, Human Health

Hong Kong was rocked this week by the news that its waters were suddenly filled with roughly 150 tons of plastic pellets after Typhoon Vincente, the worst tropical storm to hit the city-state in 13 years, toppled a cargo freighter transporting massive sacks filled with plastic nurdles. TIME magazine reports that beach cleanups led up hundreds of local volunteers are now underway to clean up the mounds of snowy white pellets covering beach dunes. It's estimated that 21 tons of pellets have already washed ashore and that approximately 50 tons have been collected by the manufacturer. Once in the environment, it can be nearly impossible to gather up and dispose of tiny plastic pellets, which are used in plastics manufacturing.

There are conflicting reports as to how swiftly and transparently the government handled the disaster. As we originally wrote, the Oman Observer reported that the govenment did not disclose the spill for over a week. The Wall Street Journal has since reported that environmental groups are praising both the government and organized volunteer efforts for quickly addressing the problem and working to collect the nurdles from beaches and local waters.

One lingering concern is how the pellets will impact the food chain. Gary Stokes of environmental group Sea Shepherd Hong Kong, which first reported about the spill late last week, states that the disaster could have a devastating effect. He likens the pellet spill to an oil spill disaster.

So far we have discovered 250 plus sacks, of which approximately 50% have spilled their deadly contents into the ecosystem. This is the equivalent of a SOLIDIFIED OIL SPILL.

The biggest problem is that this material absorbs toxins and pollutants, turning it a yellowish brown color. The darker the pellet becomes the more toxic it is. Small fish, birds, and even large filter feeding species such as whales, whale sharks, and manta rays eat these pellets, mistaking them for fish eggs. Once eaten, the animals become toxic and often die. Bigger fish eat the small fish and this continues up the food chain, spreading the toxicity into seafood that will end up on our tables for human consumption.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Hong Kong government has said that the risk from eating contaminated fish is "unlikely to be significant," though this was apparently said in reference to eating fish caught in local waters. (Most fish eaten in Hong Kong are not caught domestically.) It's unclear how the spread of the contaminents could impact marine populations elsewhere or people who eat fish caught in Hong Kong waters. It is also still unclear how one notable endangered species that lives off of Hong Kong shores, the Chinese white dolphin, may be impacted by the spill.

Photo via jschneid on Flickr

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