Portsmouth researchers have discovered glass in sealife and we cannot ignore it

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The discovery by Portsmouth researchers of glass fragments lodged in shellfish tissue is truly 'Ballardesque': the violent merging of organic nature with the inorganic products of human industry. Unfortunately, we have yet to take the the environmental consequences of our actions seriously. Researchers have suggested that we should as of yet not be afraid to consume glass-polluted shellfish.

As if the microplastic scare was not enough to attract attention to our destructive relation with nature, scientists at Portsmouth University (and Brighton University) have just discovered thousands of fibreglass shards in just a few kilos of shellfish hauls. Specifically: 11,220 particles per kilogram of oysters, and 2,740 per kilogram of mussels. This sudden discovery of glass in sea organisms has been linked to the degradation of fibreglass (especially that used for boats) which is entering various ecosystems and beginning to pose a ‘new threat’ both to natural species and human consumers.

Researchers studying the glass-infested animals have stated that the miniscule fibres have penetrated and lodged themselves in organic tissue, merging with it and causing multiple local inflammations, of which the true consequences are unknown. As with each new infringement of human industry upon the natural world, policy-makers and researchers caveat their unsettling findings with the label of its ‘unknown consequences’, stating that for the time being we should not yet be afraid to continue consuming shellfish.

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Yet to any concerned reader, the consequences seem clear enough. The discovery two decades ago that tonnes of microplastics that had entered the food chain and littered the planet, and notorious images subsequently being circulated of fish and birds with stomachs mostly full of multicoloured plastic debris, should have been a sobering realisation that the inorganic products of human activity are returning to and destructively merging with nature.

11,220 glass particles per kilogram of oysters were found, and 2,740 per kilogram of mussels11,220 glass particles per kilogram of oysters were found, and 2,740 per kilogram of mussels
11,220 glass particles per kilogram of oysters were found, and 2,740 per kilogram of mussels

It is no longer, however, a mere question of plastics – plastics which have infiltrated every corner of the world, from Arctic snow to remote deserts. The ecological and biological damage threatened by microplastics was clear enough: they are small enough to be absorbed into cellular systems, to reduce fertility, and to disrupt vital endocrine processes. These imperceptible products of the environmental breakdown of discarded plastic were not taken seriously. The question of whether the consumption of plastic is ‘truly harmful’ is still shockingly up for debate. We can soon envision government guidelines on the levels of plastic that are acceptable to consume, and how to live with a plastic diet and environment, already heralded by articles supinely accepting that ‘plastic is everywhere’ and perpetuating the same vague optimism that we still don’t know what this actually means.

Today, however, a new sobering reality of the destructivity of manufacture sets in. It is no longer simply the case of undetectable traces of microplastics infiltrating our bodies and wreaking havoc on nature. Shards of glass are now spreading in the ecosystem, piercing and inflaming flesh in a new Ballardesque horror of violent mixtures of the organic with the inorganic.

The discovery by Portsmouth researchers, of the permeation of the inorganic products of industry in organic matter, is important and cannot be ignored. Yet despite this, we are told to keep consuming potentially glass-infested shellfish. As with the microplastic crisis, the economic market responsible for these catastrophes still insists that we do not let it influence our consumer habits. As plastic not only destroys living cells, but as glass now skewers inner organic tissues, we are still being told that the consequences are ‘unknown’, and that we should only slightly adapt our spending in accordance with these discoveries. ‘Tips and tricks’ for selecting lower-plastic over higher-plastic foods is a new trend. This seems to be a convenient ignorance of the fundamental problem: we should not be tweaking consumer trends to adapt to almost incomprehensible levels of climate destruction. We should instead recognise and seriously discuss the ecological problem that consumption and industry as a whole have produced. The value of ignorance is quickly depreciating, and it is time to take the global consequences of our actions seriously.

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