Magazine article Science News

Styrofoam Degrades in Seawater, Leaving Tiny Contaminants Behind: Study Suggests Styrene Units Are Fouling the Pacific Ocean

Magazine article Science News

Styrofoam Degrades in Seawater, Leaving Tiny Contaminants Behind: Study Suggests Styrene Units Are Fouling the Pacific Ocean

Article excerpt

From the beer cooler at the bow to flotation devices and bumpers, life on the sea often involves light, white foamed plastic, commonly known by the trademark Styrofoam. But life in the sea encounters the plastic as well. The chemical building blocks of foamed polystyrene have been detected in areas of the Pacific Ocean, and lab experiments demonstrate that the plastic degrades at seawater temperatures, researchers reported August 19.

"Plastics are a contaminant that goes beyond the visual," says Bill Henry of the Long Marine Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The researchers' reports are important, he says, because they provide "some of the first evidence of polystyrene as a potential contaminant to wildlife that's more on the molecular level."

Polystyrene foam is a manufactured plastic primarily made up of rings of carbon and hydrogen attached to long hydrocarbon chains. Polystyrene breaks down into smaller styrene units, and studies suggest that the smallest of these units--the styrene monomer--is carcinogenic in mice. Its effect on other organisms isn't yet clear.

Water samples collected off Malaysia and the U.S. Pacific coast and in the northern Pacific Ocean contained styrene monomers, as well as styrene dimers and trimers, reported Katsuhiko Saido of Nihon University in Chiba, Japan. Saido and colleagues also degraded polystyrene foam in the lab at 30[degrees] Celsius, similar to seawater temperature in some areas. …

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