News Brief by Kip Hansen — 24 December 2022
Most of the science being done today is good work – solidly done. The problem occurs when the press become involved. Let’s be frank, scientists want their work to be widely read, they want their work to be seen as ‘important’, meaningful, and, let’s admit it, popular. They want the press to cover their latest study.
The problem this causes is not all the fault of The Press – scientists tend to let their institutional press offices ‘sex up’ study results and the implications of study findings. The Mass Media (no longer being printed on presses but rather mysteriously propagating itself across the internet as bits and bytes — electronic 1s and 0s) needs to produce content that people will read – or at least headlines that the public will click on .
[Clicks produce income for digital outlets – and I will admit to having invented, with five other people, one of the most ubiquitous tracking systems ever – increasing the commercial value of websites by 80% overnight. Yes, there’s a patent, long expired now.]
Our example today comes from our old favorite The Guardian, whose journalists are easily taken in by sciencey stories. The latest one is:
The headline is false on its face, but the sub-headline is at least a bit more accurate:
“Chemicals that leach out of plastic shown to cause fatal abnormalities, including gut developing outside body”
Of course, that is not exactly correct either.
There’s a study! (I am growing fond of that statement as a meme…)
The real study, which appears to be carefully done, in an activist-science sort of way, is:
Of course, when one reads the paper, one finds out that “nurdles” don’t do anything. But when factory-fresh nurdles were poured into water and then “leached for 72 h on a Heidolph orbital platform shaker (Heidolph Unimax 2010), with continuous shaking at room temperature (ca 18°C) in the dark” (at a one cup of nurdles to ten cups of water ratio) one gets a leachate of fresh nurdles, which, unsurprisingly, contains a lot of chemicals.
If the leachate of chemicals is put in beakers with freshly fertilized sea urchin eggs, things don’t go well for the little urchins. This is not a surprise. Almost any combination of “not sea water” chemicals would be expected to have some adverse effect because, according to the paper, “Marine invertebrate development is a particularly sensitive life stage as it happens very quickly and directly in the water.”
The bottom line of the study is given in the:
“Nurdle spills are, sadly, a source of unwanted plastic contamination, where enormous quantities of plastic nurdles can be found (Partow et al., 2021; Sewwandi et al., 2022). It is very unlikely that high concentrations of plastic pellets like the ones used in our study are found in environmental settings other than in some areas immediately after these accidents.” [my emphasis – kh]
“We have shown that new plastic nurdles are able leach harmful chemicals, in particular heavy metals that, at high concentrations, disrupt the development of sea urchin embryos.”
and they add speculation to good science:
“Given the highly conserved nature of developmental processes, it is not difficult to imagine that other organisms will also be affected in a similar way.”
My Bottom Lines:
1. Spilling huge quantities of freshly manufactured plastic pellets known as “nurdles” into the sea is a bad thing. This happened when the X-Press Pearl container ship was wrecked off Sri Lanka in 2021. But, we already knew that. And, of course, the harm to sea urchins embryos is only possible at such massive spill sites.
2. Nurdles and microbeads do not belong in the oceans. Ever. There have been many efforts to demonize plastic in general and microplastics in particular. Nurdles are the size of lentils and are larger than microplastic – but are subject to bio-degradation just the same. No type of plastic trash belongs in the oceans, in the rivers, on roadsides or in the environment – it belongs in recycling plants, in waste-to-energy plants, or in landfills.
3. Putting things in the oceans that don’t belong there is BAD. Don’t do it. However, anything you do put in the ocean, if not outright immediately poisonous, becomes either food or a home for some creature of the deep.
4. This type of science is “fad science”. Anti-plastics science is a fad, like linking-something-bad-to-global-warming science. Sure to get published, almost sure to get press coverage. Very little of it adds to the base-load of human knowledge. In simple words, a waste of effort and money. Quoting Dr. Judith Curry, “research that is neither useful nor contributes to fundamental understanding.”
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We have either too many scientists and not enough things to study, or too many scientists are forced to publish or perish even if they must publish nothings.
I have advocated in the past for fields of science – like “is plastic a problem or not” — in their larger field-specific bodies, the AGU is an example, to get their best people together and lay out what questions need answering most urgently or most importantly. Then scientists in the field could focus on the most needed things first. Silly studies like this would not be funded. [It is not entirely silly – but was unneeded — their main finding that “massive spills of nurdles are bad” was already known.]
Do I do any better? I don’t know – I write about things that either interest me or catch my attention. I won’t be insulted by your opinions in comments.
Thanks for reading.
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