The River Thames has some of the worst plastic pollution in the world, new research highlighting its impact on wildlife has revealed.
Experts declared themselves ‘unsurprised’ that microplastics were found in 80% of the capital’s tap water, as they estimated that 5,041 microbeads – which come from exfoliants in cosmetic products – flow down the Thames every second at Greenwich.
Scientists from the University of London’s Royal Holloway also believe some 94,000 microplastics flow down sections of the river each second. That is a higher density than several other major European rivers, including the Rhine in Germany and the Danube in Romania.
Microbeads, glitter and other plastic fragments were all found in water samples taken from Putney in south-west London and Greenwich in the south-east of the capital. Researchers also warned that single-use items growing in popularity amid the coronavirus pandemic could worsen the problem.
Crabs and various types of fish along the river were found to have consumed small items of plastic.
The studies – reported in three separate papers published in the Science of the Total Environment and Environmental Pollution – suggest that the majority of microplastics found in the river came in the form of plastic film and fragments, which were broken down from larger items such as bottles, wrappers and bags.
Researchers said ingested microplastics, which are defined as particles smaller than 5mm, had been reported in nine species of fish in the river, including 75% of its European flounder population.
Meanwhile, an examination of 135 crabs in river resulted in 874 pieces of plastic being removed from their bodies.
Researchers know that humans ingest microplastics but are not yet certain that they are harmful to our health.
The Thames is the UK’s second longest river, stretching about 215 miles (346km) across southern England.
It drains the whole of Greater London and its tidal section is said to be home to some 125 species of fish.
The density of microplastics in the Thames (19.5 plastics per cubic metre) was found to be greater than levels recorded in the River Po in Italy and the River Chicago in the US.
While it had lower levels than the Yangtze River in China, scientists said the Thames study excluded the abundance of microfibres, which accounted for 79% of all microplastics in the Yangtze Estuary.
Professor Dave Morritt, from the department of biological sciences at Royal Holloway, said: ‘Taken together these studies show how many different types of plastic, from microplastics in the water through to larger items of debris physically altering the foreshore, can potentially affect a wide range of organisms in the River Thames.
‘The increased use of single-use plastic items, and the inappropriate disposal of such items, including masks and gloves, along with plastic-containing cleaning products, during the current Covid-19 pandemic, may well exacerbate this problem.’
Earlier this year, Metro.co.uk revealed growing concerns among the scientific community that breathing in tiny particles of plastic could be damaging human health.
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