Biology, ecology and biomedical science at Brighton

University of Brighton biosciences blog

Dr Corina Ciocan at the harbour

Brighton research on microplastic marine pollution raises primetime alarm

Research by University of Brighton on an overlooked cause of potentially health-damaging marine pollution has been highlighted on BBC1’s The One Show.

The programme on 6 September featured University of Brighton’s marine biologist Dr. Corina Ciocan, whose research team has found alarming evidence of tiny shards of fibreglass shed from ageing or discarded boats being taken up by marine organisms – including those we eat.

Dr Ciocan’s team found 7000 microscopic bits of boat fibreglass in just a single oyster at Chichester Harbour on the English south coast. These tiny flecks of plastic also contain chemicals known as phthalates that have been associated with health problems including breast cancer and ADHD.

There are millions of fibreglass boats worldwide, and The One Show team found old boats around the UK being offered online for sums as low as £1.50, or even for free. Some owners, however, simply dump boats on the shore or sink them – aided by the fact that a lack of effective registration rules can make it very difficult to trace the owner of any particular boat.

Since the first fibreglass leisure boats were made in the 1950s, they have spread in huge numbers across the globe. Yet no thought has been given to safe disposal when they reach the end of their lives, despite the fact that their fibreglass cannot currently be recycled, and is expected to last at least 1000 years in the environment.

The initial stages of Dr Ciocan’s groundbreaking research on microplastic pollution from fibreglass boats were the subject of a TV report on BBC Countryfile in 2020, as well as a feature in The Conversation. Since then, PhD student Claudine Anne-Marie Annels and others on the University of Brighton team have developed a new biocomposite material designed to remove the harmful microplastics from the water, and this is currently being tested at different sites around Chichester Harbour.

Funding for further PhD research by Natalie Huckle on fibreglass accumulation in coastal habitats – and how to combat it – has also recently been received from the Chichester Harbour Conservancy and The Manor of Bosham and The Hundred, a key private landowner in the area.

Dr Corina Ciocan, Senior Lecturer in Marine Biology in the University of Brighton’s School of Applied Sciences, said: “Fibreglass boats have for over 60 years provided affordable and durable vessels for  recreational sailors and small-scale fishing communities across the globe. As these vessels now reach their end-of-life as seagoing craft, they are creating an emerging crisis as the boats decay and release toxic microfibres into the aquatic environments that are then being taken up by various kinds of marine life.

“The abandonment of these vessels also interferes with maritime traffic and fishing activities, as well as littering and damaging the seabed.

Stephanie Thomson • September 7, 2022


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