New research from Qatar University has documented the concentration of microplastics in the Gulf’s seawaters for the first time. It’s part of a worldwide trend to catalogue the global distribution of these tiny plastics, which mainly come from cosmetic products.
The researchers in Doha had been collaborating with scientists at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, but that partnership has been jeopardized by the diplomatic rift that has developed between Qatar and some of its neighbors.
“This is the first study of its kind in the region,” says Jeffrey Obbard, a professor of environmental science at Qatar University, who leads the study.
The waters surrounding Qatar hold an average of 0.7 microplastic particles per cubic meter.
“That doesn’t sound huge but there’s a lot of water. When we compare it to the U.K. or the U.S., it’s towards the higher end of the spectrum,” says Obbard. “It’s normal to high, which tells me it’s worth tracking over time. We don’t want to be alarmist but it’s worrying enough to keep an eye on.”
Microplastic particles are defined as any plastic particles smaller than five millimetres in diameter. The particles find their way from homes and industrial sources into the water supply and are eventually swept out to sea. They originate in various ways. Sometimes they simply come from the degradation of larger chunks of plastic, but the biggest source by far is the cosmetic industry.
The little beads in face scrubs, body washes and toothpastes contain large amounts of microplastics. “It’s estimated that a single shower using these products can cause 100,000 microplastic particles to end up the ocean,” says Obbard.
These microplastics have already gotten into marine food systems. “There is evidence of microplastics in fish guts, but it’s debatable if they end up on our plates because fish are usually filleted. But shellfish, like mussels and oysters, are consumed whole, and so are a greater risk,” says Obbard.
In truth, scientists aren’t yet sure if microplastics present health issues to humans when they’re ingested—chemically speaking, the plastics themselves are fairly benign. It’s the other substances attached to them that could be more concerning.
That is the focus of research for another researcher at Qatar University who was not involved with Obbard’s study. “I look at microplastics and the pollutants they adsorb,” says Radhouan Ben-Hamadou, an assistant professor of marine sciences at Qatar University.
Chemicals called “persistent organic pollutants” cling to microplastics. Many of these compounds were originally synthesized as agricultural pesticides around the world but have largely been outlawed since the 1970s due to their toxicity and links to cancer. In the Gulf many of these pollutants were also produced by the oil and gas industries. Despite the ban, these chemicals—as the name might suggest—have not yet been erased from the environment.
“It has been long suspected that microplastics are acting as a vector for these nasty chemicals,” says Ben-Hamadou.
Various environmental social media campaigns in the West have already drawn attention to the dangers of microplastics, leading the United Kingdom and California to begin a process to regulate their use. “There are solutions. It’s not rocket science,” says Obbard. “We need to reduce the sources of microplastics, which requires regulation.”
The first step towards correcting the problem is to establish the scale of microplastic pollution and prove that it’s happening, which Ben-Hamadou says is why research such as Obbard’s is so important.
Microplastics on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula in the Red Sea are also thought to be a potential concern.
“Plastic pollution is a major source of impact to marine ecosystems and is particularly acute in Arab waters,” says Carlos Duarte, the director of the Red Sea Research Center at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.
Ben-Hamadou had been collaborating with Duarte and others in Saudi Arabia until the recent political split between Qatar and the other Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia.
“The idea was to have sampling at the same time with the same methodology in the Gulf and the Red Sea to create a more regional perspective,” says Ben-Hamadou.
But this collaboration has been halted because the researchers in Saudi Arabia have been warned not to communicate with their counterparts in Qatar.
Duarte declined to comment on the collaboration shutdown, but Ben-Hamadou expressed his irritation. “The exchange has stopped. We can’t receive or send emails to each other anymore. This is frustrating for us because ecology has no border.”
He adds that while data cannot be officially exchanged between the two teams, he hopes the collection is still taking place in Saudi Arabia so they can work together once political tensions have died down.
“It’s important that when a regional collaboration is started it is maintained because it’s not really a tradition here,” says Ben-Hamadou.