Nurdle Weathering and Organic Pollutants


Nurdle pollution is a global concern, contributing to increased microplastics in marine environments and impacting the health of marine organisms. As nurdles share a similar size and shape to fish eggs, accidental consumption by marine animals and birds can occur. Animal consumption of nurdles can lead to intestinal blockage and decreases in food intake, impacting overall body condition and potentially resulting in death. Unfortunately, there is an additional threat from nurdles impacting animal health: exposure to toxic pollutants. When animals consume nurdles, they are also consuming any pollutants nurdles have collected on their surface. A large surface area to volume ratio and an ability to repel water enables nurdles to easily collect persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from the surrounding environment. In understanding the risk of chemical contamination from nurdle consumption, it is necessary to examine the concentration of pollutants and quantify their bioaccessibility, which is how much of a contaminant will be released to the gastrointestinal tract of an organism.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute sought to better understand what nurdles found along the Gulf of Mexico in Texas were made of and how weathering on nurdles can impact the concentration and bioaccessiblity of organic pollutants. Examining nurdles collected from Texas coastlines, researchers discovered 18.1% of nurdles sampled were made of polypropylene, and 81.9% were made from polyethylene. Researchers also tested for a variety of POPs and discovered heavily weathered nurdles had higher pollutant concentrations. However, the bioaccessibility of pollutants was actually lower in heavily weathered nurdles than in lightly weathered ones, and certain POPs on nurdles were not bioaccessible at all. These results demonstrate the insufficiency in only measuring pollutant concentrations on nurdles, as quantifying bioaccessibility is also crucial in evaluating the toxicity of nurdles on marine life.

For a more in-depth reading on how weathering can impact the concentration and bioaccessibility of organic pollutants associated with nurdles, check out the article below!

Article Reference:

Jiang, X., Lu, K., Tunnell, J. W., & Liu, Z. (2021). The impacts of weathering on concentration and bioaccessibility of organic pollutants associated with plastic pellets (nurdles) in coastal environments. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 170, 112592. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2021.112592

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About the author: Lisa Scobel is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she is pursuing a master’s in Environmental Conservation. A native of the Gulf Coast, Lisa is devoted to protecting coastal ecosystems and is passionate about reducing plastic pollution. Currently, Lisa is focused on expanding Nurdle Patrol by generating new partnerships and promoting data collection efforts.