BEIRUT, The Daily Star- The average Lebanon resident may be eating more than 30,000 small pieces of plastic per year from seafood alone, according to the results of the first study on microplastic particles in the country.

The study, which analyzed two marine species widely consumed in Lebanon – the European anchovy, which is commonly eaten fried as “bizri,” and the spiny oyster, often served simply under the name mussels – found high levels of plastic contamination in both.

According to the study, the average Lebanon resident consumes 7 kilograms of seafood per year. When that is multiplied by the average of 4,500 small plastic pieces found in every kilogram of oyster, they could be consuming 31,500 microplastic particles per year.

The study found significant levels of contamination in seawater and sediments in Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli, the three areas it surveyed.

The most prominent plastic in seawater was polyethylene, widely used in plastic bottles and bags. Sediments showed a higher presence of polypropylene, a plastic used in textiles and packaging for consumer products. Polystyrene, also commonly used in packaging, was present in larger quantities in the organisms sampled. “The levels of [plastic particles] found were alarmingly high in comparison to other Mediterranean regions,” the study concluded.

The concentration of microplastics was found to be 4.3 pieces per cubic meter of seawater, compared to between 0.17 and 0.62 in the western Mediterranean, for example.

While seawater contamination was greatest in Sidon, at 6.7 microplastic particles per cubic meter, sediments were most contaminated in Tripoli. The study said that this might be a consequence of the general northward circulation of water along Lebanon’s coast.

According to the study, Lebanon’s coastal landfills may partially be to blame for seawater contamination.

Sidon’s high levels of contamination provided preliminary evidence that a massive decommissioned landfill on the city’s coast wasn’t the final resting place of plastics, but “a potential source of microplastics,” because the breakdown and release of the tiny particles into the environment is a long-term process.

The study also found that the same plastics dumped in landfills were present in sediments, the sea and the marine life surveyed. “Even though some [landfills] are no longer active … their waste continues to find its way into the sea due to mismanagement and lack of proper treatments,” the study said.

Lebanon should “be considered as an important microplastics source in the Mediterranean basin.”

Sharif Joumaa, one of the study’s authors, told The Daily Star that the National Center for Marine Studies, with which he is affiliated, was continuing to research the thesis that runoff from landfills – known as leachate – is involved in the pollution.

Currents may also play a role in hemming plastics into the eastern Mediterranean, where Lebanon lies.

Microplastic pollution is a growing global concern. The tiny particles are either intentionally produced, such as in the case of polystyrene beads used in packaging, or result from the breakdown of larger plastics in the environment over time.

Areas with high human activity, such as the Mediterranean, are prone to seeing relatively higher concentrations of the particles than elsewhere.

The U.N.’s special rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak, has referred to microplastics as “a growing concern to a number of human rights,” including to “a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.”

A June study by the University of Newcastle, in Australia, found that people could be ingesting 5 grams of plastic a week – the weight of a credit card. While the health risks have not yet been documented in depth, some studies have shown the building blocks of these plastics could interfere with natural hormone activity in humans. Additionally, many of the substances added to plastics, such as coloring, include heavy metals that are known carcinogens. Plastics have also been shown to attract other contaminants from the environment that can then be ingested.

Some 83 percent of the anchovies surveyed in Lebanon were found to contain microplastics, a level on par with the Adriatic Sea but much higher than the western Mediterranean, where 11 to 40 percent have been found to contain the particles.

Every single oyster surveyed showed some sign of contamination, and 86 percent showed evidence of microplastics in their soft tissue.

Both of these species are consumed whole, without the removal of their digestive tract, which, according to the study, “raises the concern on the human consumption of this contaminated seafood.”

The study, titled “Microplastics pollution along the Lebanese coast (Eastern Mediterranean Basin): Occurrence in surface water, sediments and biota samples,” is set to be published in the December issue of Science of the Total Environment, a leading international journal. It is just the latest academic work to reveal the extent of plastic pollution in Lebanon.

In 2017, a study by the nonprofit reporting organization Orb Media showed that Lebanon’s tap water had the second-highest concentration of plastic particles in the world, with just fewer than 94 percent of samples showing contamination. Tap water is not commonly used for drinking in Lebanon, but it is used for cooking, cleaning and bathing, meaning it is almost certainly ingested.

Hussam Hawwa, the director of Difaf, the environmental consultancy that provided the Lebanese tap water samples to Orb Media, said that a large portion of the plastics entered Lebanon’s groundwater via seawater intrusion – a thesis supported by this latest study.

CREDIT: The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir.