Yet Another “Plastic Kills” Story

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:

“Plastic ‘nurdles’ stop sea urchins developing properly, study finds“

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:

“Plastic leachate-induced toxicity during sea urchin embryonic development: Insights into the molecular pathways affected by PVC”

This paper is anIn Press, Journal Pre-proof” but it has been peer-reviewed.  There is a .pdf version available free.

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. 

A handful of nurdles

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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Author’s Comment:

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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Rud Istvan
December 23, 2022 10:17 am

Highly contrived experiment. Concentration 1:10—any spill would be into a BIG ocean at much lower concentration. Agitate continuously for 72 hours when nurdles would sink out of wave action zone and not be agitated. Temperature 18C— most ocean is colder, especially deeper. Urchins like 10C. 18C by itself impairs development—Known aquarium fact.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
December 23, 2022 3:24 pm

no one likes sea urchins (except to eat, in some cases.)

Kip I tried one at a quality Japanese restaurant once.
For me, one of the most disgusting-tasting morsels I have ever sampled.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
December 23, 2022 6:30 pm

Yeah, I have tried Kina. Not to my liking. But the Kiwi’s like them.

Tom Halla
December 23, 2022 10:19 am

Rather like the “maximum tolerated dose” studies of cancer studies in rodents. Feed the poor beastie almost enough to make the rat sick from the chemical toxicity, then see if it develops cancer. California still thinks that procedure yields useful results.

Gary Pearse
December 23, 2022 10:44 am

I recall a scientist a number of years ago reporting that bottled water stored for several months had single digit parts per trillion antimony leached into the water and how this would accumulate in the the human body (I was writing a multi-client report on the economics of antimony {Sb} under contract with a UK mineral commodities consulting firm when this ‘alarming’ finding came to light).

One for use for Sb is as a catalyst in PET plastic production. An age old use is in preparations taken by the spoonful for treatment of protozoan parasites! How much is 5 parts per trillion? Well, the distance earth to the sun is 15 trillion centimeters. A dollar bill is 15 cm long, so 5 one dollar bills laid end to end is 5 parts per trillion of the distance (2½ feet) to the sun.

Reply to  Gary Pearse
December 23, 2022 11:36 am

The length of a dollar bill (6 inches or 15cm) is a trillionth of the distance to the sun. Now that is a handy way of understanding a trillionth. Thanks.

One way I look at a trillion is that if someone collected a million dollars every single day from the year 1 to today, they still would not have a trillion dollars. Not even close.

Joao Martins
Reply to  Mike Jonas
December 24, 2022 4:26 am

Are you trying to imply that a vaxine for not absorbing that plastic nerdle stuff is outside the scope of the Gates Foundation?

December 23, 2022 10:48 am

I might suggest that plastic trash is best disposed of in a landfill. Recycling plants and waste-to-energy plants are mostly a poor use of resources.

Last edited 1 month ago by GregInHouston
Reply to  Kip Hansen
December 24, 2022 9:14 am

Completely agree, but try telling those in power. Burning rubbish to generate electricity is a no no, much more sustainable to pelletise virgin forest, and ship it halfway around the world.

Last edited 1 month ago by Jackdaw
Reply to  GregInHouston
December 24, 2022 2:03 am

And landfill is a better one?

B Zipperer
Reply to  GregInHouston
December 26, 2022 10:19 am

You might find this book interesting:
“Garbagology” by Edward Hughes.
Landfills are are discussed at length – I was surprised at the science behind
how they bury things. Plus the production of methane for power production.

December 23, 2022 10:51 am

Kind of reminds me of the cyclamate sweetener study. Pump dosages 10,000 times greater than normal use or exposure and then wonder why the lab rats got cancer.

Reply to  rah
December 23, 2022 9:14 pm

Or the reverse process, if the desired result is to dis prove the something is useful.

Joao Martins
Reply to  rah
December 24, 2022 4:29 am

Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, aka Paracelsus (1493-1541), free translation: “The dose makes the poison”.

December 23, 2022 11:16 am

Would just say that if anyone had paid attention over the last 11 years, the PH balance of the ocean has jumped ever so slightly due to radiation Amerikonium, Stontnium, Cesium, P333, U233 from Fukushima. They have non stop been dumping this radioactive water containing millions of times threshold into the pacific ocean.

We have seen all forms of shell fish in some case die off and even melt into mush. Out of site out of mind has caused people to believe whatever BS they are telling them, not addressing the ELE event caused by the radioactive nightmare and waste being directly dumped into the ocean without recourse. ELE extinction level event for the ocean.

D. J. Hawkins
Reply to  RedEagle
December 23, 2022 11:43 am

Could you take some time from polishing your tinfoil hat and drop a link or three to published studies on this?

Reply to  RedEagle
December 23, 2022 12:07 pm

Melt into mush?
A claim so absurd it does not warrant debunking.

Reply to  RedEagle
December 23, 2022 12:07 pm

They have non stop been dumping this radioactive water containing millions of times threshold into the pacific ocean.“. You need to back that statement up with some facts. Various organisations have been monitoring radiation since Fukushima, and their findings do not support your claim, eg. here, here (levels of radioactivity off Fukushima remain elevated [but well below] US government safety limits for drinking water, and well below limits of concern for direct exposure while swimming, boating, or other recreational activities.). Do we trust them? Well, the general rule is “Trust, but verify (Доверяй, но проверяй)”. Verification, please.

Reply to  Mike Jonas
December 23, 2022 9:16 pm

You might as well tell a Greenpeace fanatic that GMO crops are ok.

Reply to  RedEagle
December 23, 2022 2:33 pm

This looks like a lying narrative since no links posted to support your claims and no media excitement over it which would have been all over the news……… if it was really happening.

Maybe you had too much Egg Nog today……..

Last edited 1 month ago by Sunsettommy
Reply to  Sunsettommy
December 23, 2022 9:18 pm

Every alarmist fantasy has its ultra fanatic adherents.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Sunsettommy
December 24, 2022 8:21 am

Or not enough.

Ben Vorlich
December 23, 2022 11:18 am

Spilling huge quantities of freshly manufactured plastic pellets known as “nurdles” into the sea is a bad thing.

And something most customers and manufacturers avoid because the costs involved.

Reply to  Ben Vorlich
December 23, 2022 3:35 pm

Desalination plants around the world dump big doses of concentrated brine into their surrounds continuously too.

Don’t even bother trying to catch a fish for your dinner near these behemoths.

But of course being in the spectrum of a “green” type of measure that fits “the narrative”, these effects don’t get much of a mention in the msm.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
December 23, 2022 4:54 pm

One of the tricks is to build a desalination plant next to a power plant. That way the cooling water which is dumped miles off shore can carry the waste water with it. That dilutes it and likely puts it where the currents can dilute it even more. The exit is also far enough down that it’s unlikely to cause a problem with the surface life.

Reply to  Dena
December 23, 2022 9:21 pm

Besides, a desalination operation requires a power plant.

Reply to  Mr.
December 23, 2022 9:20 pm

I suspect that fresh rainwater into the oceans, diluting them of course, far exceeds human desalination efforts.

December 23, 2022 11:24 am


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.

Wonderful idea: however I’m pretty sure even this method will fail. Publish or Perish is just too ingrained a thing- and there are too many scientists who, well, just aren’t up to snuff.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
December 23, 2022 9:23 pm

yes, see
for a prime example of someone looking for something totally touchy deely that they might be able to handle.

Joseph Zorzin
December 23, 2022 11:57 am

“Most of the science being done today is good work – solidly done.”
But is it? I thought most or at least too much of it was not repeatable. And even if much of it is OK- it’s not particularly useful information worth the cost.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
December 23, 2022 9:24 pm

Why do you say
“The reasons for lack of reproducibility are not for lack of trying or mal-intention.”
Faith in human nature?

B Zipperer
Reply to  Kip Hansen
December 26, 2022 12:30 pm

It may be worse than you think. This study of how 73 different groups analyzed the SAME dataset from the social science literature.

The results suggest that multiple, seemly benign (and likely acceptable) choices on how to handle the data lead to markedly different conclusions.
No nefarious assumptions are required. One of the references called it
“the Garden of Forked Paths”.
We should be skeptical of all statistical results, unless [maybe] they were pre-specified. Otherwise, even if honest, the researchers have too may “degrees of freedom”. But if there is an agenda? LOL.

Reply to  AndyHce
December 24, 2022 8:35 am

I would guess that the major reason for the reproducibility crisis is lack of competence. Researchers are not properly trained to control bias in experimental design, in spite of what we know about the insidious way in which bias inserts itself. Due to the dumbing down of degrees and fair hiring practises, many of the people doing science are not very bright nor very committed to the scientific method. The lack of intelligence in researchers leads to comments like “there aren’t many things to research” and concurrently results in grade school level research projects such as the one in hand. It takes years of observation to know a complex system well enough to find the questions which are interesting and resolvable. The moronically simplistic question at the base of this research, something like “plastic is bad, let us find a way to illustrate how bad” is indicative of a “researcher” who has no understanding of the complexity of life and natural systems but who has been inculcated with the usual woke biases. Then there is publish or perish which encourages publication of the least flatulence, the linking of funding to the cause du jour, the adsurd notion that committees of researchers can exceed the brilliance of one suberb researcher and so on. Science is in crisis and the innocuous bit of drivel masquerading as science in this case is a perfect example of how science dies with a whimper, not a bang.

Paul Hurley
December 23, 2022 12:25 pm

It seems rather easy to find one or more scientists willing to say what they are paid to say.

Peta of Newark
December 23, 2022 1:30 pm

Quote:“3. Putting things in the oceans that don’t belong there is BAD. Don’t do it.

Epic. Spectacular. You Tell Em

I’ve been saying that for years about farmland soil but nobody pays a blind bit of notice

Am curious about these Heavy Metals, What are they and how do they get into the plastic.
or especially, why are Heavy & Toxic Metals such as Mercury and Aluminium (as preservatives in vaccines) routinely injected into newborns and children, supposedly to protect their health

What am I missing here

Last edited 1 month ago by Peta of Newark
Curious George
Reply to  Peta of Newark
December 23, 2022 2:14 pm

Don’t put “black smoker” metal-laden hot springs in the ocean.

Hatter Eggburn
December 23, 2022 2:54 pm

WUWT silence on the 40-year record cold storm in the USA? What’s up with that? O yes – this is the USA so it’s obvious mafia enforcers are putting the frighteners on. Frustrating for those of us curious about such things. You know – about climate and stuff.

Anyone interested in 40 year record cold in the USA?

Martin Brumby
Reply to  Hatter Eggburn
December 23, 2022 3:49 pm

But a thread on Sea Urchins would be a strange place to put it.

Reply to  Hatter Eggburn
December 23, 2022 4:57 pm

That was predicted almost 2 weeks ago in another thread on this site. Just waiting for the climate change crowd to catch up.

Don Perry
Reply to  Hatter Eggburn
December 24, 2022 7:52 am

Making a big deal about a single weather event would make WUWT as suspect as the alarmists making a big deal about a single heat wave. Some of us who’ve been around for 8 decades yawned at the big deal being made over some windy, cold weather event.

December 23, 2022 6:50 pm

Your lead-in statement “Most of the science being done today is good work”, is just wrong. Some, perhaps, but “most” is unlikely. I see far too much outright fraud in the academic literature. Whatever you want to prove, there will be articles you can pick to claim it’s true.

December 23, 2022 7:08 pm
  1. “We have either too many scientists and not enough things to study”
  2. “too many scientists are forced to publish or perish even if they must publish nothings”
  3. “Do I do any better? I don’t know – I write about things that either interest me or catch my attention.”
  1. Yes.
  2. Yes. This started with the invention of the printing press and just got worse with the development of the Internet. The problem is that many of these people aren’t writing about things that are true, just things that they think should be true. Or at least things that they want their audience to believe.
  3. Also yes. Even though you are writing about thing that interest you, they are also relevant to me, so I think that your writing adds to my knowledge.

People believe in two broad categories of things. Things that are true (science), and things that aren’t true (religious beliefs, like global warming).

December 23, 2022 9:08 pm

lay out what questions need answering most urgently or most importantly

How can we get more of the public to react to our work and not think about it?
How can we get more funding.?

Last edited 1 month ago by AndyHce
John DeFayette
December 24, 2022 4:05 am

You can diminish the meaning of this study as much as you want, but it’s real effect is to give more fuel to the slow burning “ban plastics” subculture. The real message of the activist-scientist is that plastic kills, and the only way to stop the murder is to stop making plastic.

These folks don’t do subtlety or nuance.

December 24, 2022 4:53 am

What could have been a useful study would be to try and determine the threshold concentration of nurdles that produces a measurable effect on a sensitive species. All toxicologists know that impacts always involve a threshold concentration, below which no measurable effects are measured. Greenies hate this part of science because they make their living hyping the linear effects assumption that is clearly bullshit.

So in this case, set up a series of pressurized tanks (the pressure replicating sea bottom conditions), at a representative temperature, filled with seawater and containing the nutrients and micro sea life that the creatures feed on replicating a real world environment. Then haphazardly dump nurdles on the bottom replicating a plausible deposition pattern from sea dumping.

Then measure the effects. If there are none, the study is over, no headlines, no mouse clicks, and no further grant money flowing in.

See what I did there? That is why such studies are never performed.

Last edited 1 month ago by Duane
Reply to  Duane
December 24, 2022 4:59 am

Of course, the natural extension of my study above that will never be performed is once a plausible dumping scenario is proven to cause no effects, then repeat the experiment at higher and higher density nurdle dumping patterns until the poor critters are completely buried in tons of nurdles, at which point there WILL be a measurable effect.

Last edited 1 month ago by Duane
December 24, 2022 5:10 am

Typical assumption bias in experiment design. The experimenters are clearly convinced that nurdle dumping is killing or damaging sea life. So they create a non representative environment and apply non-representative concentrations of fresh nurdles and voila! A negative impact is produced, thus confirming the researcher’s bias.

Any marine biologist testing a non-politically sensitive research topic would not pass a master’s thesis review of such a shoddy production. But make it politically sensitive, such as regards industrial pollution, global warming, or LGBTQ+ studies, and the grant money floods in.

December 24, 2022 9:04 am

Thanks for reading.

Thank you for adding context to yet another alarmist headline.

December 25, 2022 2:39 pm

A guaranteed basic income would weed out so many bad scientists.

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