When flesh-footed shearwater chicks hatch from their eggs, their parents start working to fill the chicks’ stomachs with as much food as possible.

They do this for about 80 to 90 days, regurgitating squid and fish into their chicks’ mouths. If all goes to plan, the chicks will grow into fledglings with feathers that will help them fly thousands of miles across the ocean. But as the world’s oceans have filled with microplastics — tiny plastic particles that shearwaters can easily mistake for food — fledglings are getting stuffed full of plastic instead of food. The outcome isn’t good, according to experts.

Scientists studying flesh-footed shearwaters (Puffinus carneipes) have long known that plastic consumption can lead to problems like reduced body conditionorgan damage, and ultimately an early death. Now, new research in the Journal of Hazardous Materials shows that consumed plastic can also lead to a newly identified disease: a plastic-related fibrosis aptly called “plasticosis.”

While this disease has thus far only been identified in flesh-footed shearwaters, experts say that nearly every organism — including humans — is being impacted by plastic in some way due to its proliferation in our environment and our ever-increasing exposure to it. One expert calls flesh-footed shearwaters the “canary in the coal mine,” forewarning us of what could happen to our own health if plastic production continues to accelerate as predicted.

‘All these pieces of plastic’

Plastic is everywhere. It’s in our clothing; it packages our food and drinks; it flakes off our car tires. Few plastic products can actually be recycled, and most of it ends up in our environment, either directly as microplastics, such as fibers shed from synthetic clothing, or as larger pieces that eventually break down into smaller pieces. This plastic pollutes the land, water and even the air, and ends up in our food, water, and ultimately our bodies. Many plastics contain toxic chemical additives, but plastic can also act as a sponge attracting other toxic substances, endangering any organism that consumes it.

In the oceans alone, scientists suggest there are now about 170 trillion pieces of plastic — and there could be even more in the future as plastic production continues to proliferate. It’s estimated that there are currently about 450 million metric tons of plastic produced each year, and production is projected to double by 2045.

Read the full article about birds ingesting microplastics by Elizabeth Claire Alberts at Eco-Business.