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Friday, January 26, 2018

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As if you needed another reason to recycle plastic, recent surveys show plastic debris in oceans is polluting coral reefs to the point that they are dying of disease.

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It's no secret that the world's coral reefs are in bad shape. Climate change has led to widespread coral bleaching, overfishing has disrupted the ecosystems that keep reefs healthy and toxic runoffs from human industry are destroying the so-called "rainforests of the sea."" Now, as Ed Yong reports for the Atlantic, a new study has highlighted the distressing magnitude of yet another threat to coral reefs: plastics.

As part of the study, published in the journal Science, researchers analyzed more than 124,000 corals from 159 reefs in Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Australia. And nearly everywhere they looked, they saw bits of plastic.

"We came across chairs, chip wrappers, Q-tips, garbage bags, water bottles, old nappies," Joleah Lamb, a marine disease ecologist at Cornell University and lead author of the study, tells Yong. "Everything you see on the beach is probably lying on the reef."

The team estimates that at least 11 billion plastic items are ensnared in coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific--and they believe that number will increase by 40 percent by 2025. This could spell disaster for the world's reefs; the team found that when corals come into contact with plastics, the likelihood of the corals developing a disease jumps from four to 89 percent.

Further investigations are needed to determine precisely how and why plastics make coral susceptible to different diseases. But generally speaking, it seems that plastic debris slices open the skin of the corals and exposes them to pathogens. "Plastic debris can cause physical injury and abrasion to coral tissues by facilitating invasion of pathogens or by exhausting resources for immune system function during wound-healing processes," the authors of the study write.