RIO DE JANEIRO – Wild and farmed mussels off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s most emblematic city, are contaminated with micro-plastics due to improper waste disposal, a worldwide problem that the South American giant is taking only tentative steps to tackle.
The plastic micro-particles that make their way into Rio’s bays due to the irresponsible discarding of plastic bottles, bags, cups, plates and other products are ingested by mussels and other mollusks, which are unable to distinguish them from ocean plankton.
Those findings come from a study conducted by professor Abilio Soares Gomes of the Niteroi, Brazil-based Federal Fluminense University’s Marine Biology Department, which analyzed micro-plastic levels in samples of wild and farmed mussels in Rio’s emblematic but badly polluted Guanabara Bay.
For the study, four groups of mussels were selected and compared with one another: depurated and non-depurated wild mussels and depurated and non-depurated farmed mussels.
The conclusion was that all of the different types of mussels are contaminated with plastic micro-particles, although the level of contamination was lower among farmed mussels.
The study also showed that plastic contamination has become a widespread problem among living organisms, including human beings, on the coast of the Cidade Maravilhosa.
Micro-plastics, as their name indicates, are miniscule, nearly imperceptible man-made pieces of plastic that are present in the marine environment, including both shallow and deep ocean waters.
But these types of particles also have been found in other food products ranging from kitchen salt to bottled mineral water because “they are contaminated by the micro-plastics present in the environment,” Soares Gomes told EFE.
“Micro-plastics today are present throughout the environment. They’re in the air, in a factory and even in salt, whose (plastic) packaging, which other foods also have, contributes to micro-plastic contamination,” he added.
He said that some studies have not concluded that consumption of micro-plastics pose a danger to human health but that others have found they can cause endocrine disruption, or interference with the production, metabolism or action of hormones in the body.
“Problems have been shown to exist in the hormonal aspect, and obesity, diabetes and an increase in those diseases could be related to the ingestion of micro-plastics,” Soares Gomes said.
While the European Union has taken steps to take single-use plastic items such as cutlery, plates and straws out of circulation by 2021 at the latest, Brazil is among the majority of countries that have not aggressively addressed the problem.
According to the latest report by the Brazilian Plastics Industry Association (Abiplast), Brazil consumed 6.5 million tons of plastic in 2017, only a quarter of which was processed and recycled.
Even so, despite campaigns promoted by environmental activists and organizations like the United Nations, there is little sign they have significantly raised public awareness.
Rio de Janeiro was the first Brazilian city to prohibit the use of plastic straws, and last year Rio de Janeiro state enacted a law aimed at halting the free distribution of plastic bags by commercial establishments.
But nine months later, complete and responsible compliance with these measures has been lacking.