issues and experts

Toxic metals from micro beach plastics are being released into our aquatic ecosystems says SFU researcher

February 14, 2018

A study led by SFU researchers Leah Bendell and Bertrand Munier reveals that even micro plastic particles, less than five millimetres, release toxic metals into aquatic ecosystems, presenting significant risks to coastal ecosystems.  

In the study, published by PLOS ONE, Munier, an environmental engineering master's student, spent four weeks picking up plastic debris from nine beaches along the Burrard Inlet.  He collected more than 150 plastic items including children’s toys, personal hygiene items, bicycle parts and food packaging.

Their findings suggest that plastics played a significant role in introducing toxic metals into the coastal ecosystems. The researchers subjected the plastics to a weak acid extraction to remove associated metals, cadmium, zinc, copper and lead.

“While extremely high levels of the four metals were found in certain items, all items carried traces of them,” says Bendell. “This can pose significant toxicological threats and impair the health of coastal ecosystems.”

Bendell explains that plastics release trace metals to intertidal ecosystems in three ways: through leaching plastics, entry into food webs through small organisms ingesting plastics and as a point source of toxic metal exposure to coastal ecosystems.

“The World Economic Forum estimates that based on current rates of plastic production, the total mass of plastics in our oceans will outweigh the biomass of fish by 2050.”

Bendell warns, “Even something as innocuous as a child’s toy left on the beach will provide a sorption site for metals, which will then break down into fragments that could then allow the entry of toxic metals into coastal food webs.” 

The researcher urges the public to be aware of the dangers posed by plastics in aquatic environments and be mindful to recycle them under all circumstances that is, zero tolerance for plastics in our aquatic and terrestrial environments.

Wan Yee Lok, Communications and Marketing,, 778.782.3210