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Plastic Waste Increases Disease Susceptibility in Coral Reefs

Coral reefs contain the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet and are important for many reasons. They protect coastlines from the harmful effects of wave action and tropical storms, and they provide habitats and shelter for many marine organisms. But the sad truth is that coral reefs are dying around the world, from pollution, and specifically plastic waste.

Plastic waste can host pathogens that are able to trigger disease outbreaks on coral reefs. However, the resulting influence on disease susceptibility in the marine environment is unknown, because no studies have examined the influence of plastic waste on disease risk.

Researchers from Cornell University surveyed 159 coral reefs from 4 countries in the Asia-Pacific for plastic waste and evaluated the influence of plastic on diseases that affect keystone reef-building corals. This specific area contains 55.5% of global coral reefs and 73% of global human population living within 50 km of a coast.

Overall, they found plastic waste on one-third of the coral reefs surveyed, defining it as a waste item with a diameter greater than 50mm. This plastic debris was found on 17 genera from 8 families of reef-forming corals. The likelihood of disease increases from 4% to 89% when corals are in contact with plastic, and the authors estimate that 11.1 billion plastic items are entangled on reefs across the Asia-Pacific and this number is expected to increase by 40% by the year 2025. That means that about 15.7 billion plastic items will be entangled on coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific alone!

Although the mechanisms of disease caused by plastic remains unknown, this study clearly shows that there is a significant problem. Sufi cite to say; plastic waste management is critical for reducing diseases that threaten ecosystem health and human livelihoods. Climate-related disease outbreaks have been affecting coral reefs globally and this issue is expected to rise in severity as ocean temperatures increase. Moderating disease outbreak risks by reducing plastic waste is something that we can actively change. The authors state that their study indicates that decreasing levels of plastic debris entering the ocean by improving waste management infrastructure is critical for reducing the amount of debris on coral reefs and therefore the associated risk of disease and structural damage.

Plastic waste management is critical for reducing diseases that threaten ecosystem health and human livelihoods.

Obviously getting rid of plastic would be the best thing to do, however, that is way easier said than done. Keeping this article in the back of your mind while grocery shopping or throwing away empty bags, may be something that helps you reduce your own plastic waste. This is the first step in preserving the natural beauty and biodiversity that is the coral reefs.

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