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World - Plastics, Pathogens and Baby Formula: What's in Your Shellfish?

The first landmark study using next-generation technology to comprehensively examine contaminants in oysters in Myanmar reveals alarming findings: the widespread presence of human bacterial pathogens and human-derived microdebris materials, including plastics, kerosene, paint, talc and milk supplement powders.

The study—led by scientists from the University of California, Irvine, in collaboration with Environmental Defense Fund, Cornell University and the University of Queensland—was conducted in the eastern Andaman Sea through partnerships with local researchers in Myanmar in the densely populated but still rural Tanintharyi region. The study concludes that coastal urbanization and lack of sewage treatment increases contamination in seafood and can cause potential health risks to humans, even large distances from pollution sources.

Study results appear in Science of the Total Environment.

The area covered by the study spanned nine coral reefs off Myanmar's Mergui Archipelago, situated roughly 40 miles from Myeik, a city with a population of over 250,000 people. The study examined contaminants in seawater and in oysters using next-generation DNA sequencing to reveal 5,459 potential human pathogens belonging to 87 species of bacteria. More than half of these pathogens are considered detrimental to human health. In addition, the scientists used infrared spectroscopy to examine individual microdebris particles found in the oysters. Of the 1,225 individual microdebris particles examined, 78 different types of contaminant materials were found.

"While 48 percent of the microparticles were microplastics—a finding representative across numerous ocean ecosystems—many other particles were not plastic and originated from a variety of human-derived materials that are constituents of fuels, paints and cosmetics," said senior author Joleah Lamb, assistant professor of ecology & evolutionary biology at UCI. "We were particularly surprised to find three different brands of milk powder formula, which comprised 14 percent of the microdebris contaminants."

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