Impacts on Environment and Health

In water, microplastics are often found clumped together with microbes and other contaminants rather than as individual particles floating around. They can appear as food for small animals (such as fish and shrimp) and filter feeders like clams. To understand the potential risks of microplastics on aquaculture farming, and to help inform farmers on best practice to reduce the risks to their livestock and consumers, we need to understand the fate of microplastics through an aquaculture system.

Few studies have investigated this issue, particularly in Southeast Asia. Our research examines how pathogens and contaminants of concern (trace elements and persistent organic pollutants, or Contaminant of Potential Ecological Concern – COPCs) associated with microplastic particles affect the health of aquatic ecosystems and how consuming aquatic products contaminated with microplastics affects human health.

For this, we need to peer through the eyes of the microbes, as they are major colonisers of microplastics and are pivotal degraders and recyclers of plastics and their associated toxic chemicals. By using the available indices and models, we are conducting more lab tests using cutting-edge technology in microbiology, ecotoxicology, and other related fields to explore and evaluate the potential impacts of microplastics on human and environmental health.

fish plastic cat ba

With the growing number of plastic debris in Viet Nam’s marine system, aquatic organisms are becoming increasingly vulnerable to microplastic exposure. Because they are small and ubiquitous, they can be eaten directly or indirectly by filter feeders and fish that mistake them for food. When consumed by these organisms, they can have adverse effects on the ecosystem and on human and animal health.

This is because microplastics are rarely found as “pristine” or “clean” particles but rather as particles contaminated by bacterial pathogens or contaminants of potential concern (COPC), such as toxic metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Such contaminants can have severe health impacts on the wild and aquaculture populations and lead to both economic and environmental loss. Moreover, they could have unknown effects on human health.

Therefore, we use various microbiological, biochemical, and molecular biology techniques to identify the microorganisms (including pathogens) and COPCs associated with microplastics collected in the waters of Viet Nam. We are focusing on waterways within and around aquaculture farms so that the results we obtain can help farmers implement new or better practices to reduce the potential ingestions of microplastics by their farmed animals.

Furthermore, we will conduct a series of lab experiments and use various biomarkers to explore and evaluate the potential impacts of microplastics on the health of aquaculture species. We will also use available indices and models to assess their health risks to humans.

Some of the techniques we will use are:

– Electron microscopy that will allow us to peer down to the nano scale of microplastic agglomerations and single microplastic particles collected from Viet Nam waters.

– Specialised analytical instruments that can detect extremely low concentrations of toxic metals and chemical pollutants associated with microplastics.

– Specially synthesised microplastics that are isotopically labelled so that we can identify the microbes responsible for the biodegradation of the microplastics, and determine if aquaculture animals ingest them.

Through this approach, the information we gain will be realistic, directly relevant, and offer valuable insights into finding ways to reduce the risks related to microplastics ingestion and make the aquaculture industry in Viet Nam safe and robust.

“Microplastics and its additives can be detected in different environments from air, soil and water. With the extremely small size, microplastics can enter organisms by various routes, and together with other pollutants in the environment, can cause adverse effects on growth and development of organisms such as malformation and modified genomes. Consequently, biodiversity can be altered or degraded due to the pollution of microplastic and its additives in the environment. By genotoxicity studies, we are able to determine a thresholds of microplastic pollution and its additives to organisms at molecular levels, which is useful information for the development of policies related to microplastic pollution to protect the environment from the loss of quality and biodiversity.”

Dr Mai Huong

“Invisible microplastics might appear insignificant and of little concern, but they can carry disease-causing microbes and toxic pollutants that enter into seafood destined for human consumption. Understanding this process will help us work with aquaculture farmers and policymakers on best practices to reduce the risks of this to marine life and humans.”

– Dr Tony Gutierrez

“Microbes easily evolve and adapt to changing environments, and the large number of plastics finding their way to rivers and the ocean provide such novel conditions. It is no wonder that microbes are making of these human-made pollutants their home. By understanding which of these microbes are harmful to seafood species and potentially to humans, as well as which other might be degrading plastics, we can contribute to the solutions that the global plastic problem needs.”

Dr Priscilla Carrillo-Barragán 

“Tiny particles can cause big problems for our ecosystem and health. Hence, ignoring minor issues can lead to major consequences. Getting to the bottom of the matter allows us to understand the problem and its implications better. We aim to inform fishermen, aquaculture farmers, and policymakers about our new findings and work with them to make changes that will help reduce plastic waste and protect aquatic life and humans.”

– Dr Ngo Thi Thuy Huong

What dangerous microbes and chemicals are carried by microplastics? What risks do microplastics pose to aquaculture and to humans who consume their livestock?

To learn more on the methods and approaches we use to understand these questions, you can view the information showcased at our Lab Websites featuring this work.

cat ba sampling 6
red river sampling 9
red river sampling 3

Many microbes are responsible for causing disease in animals and humans. Some microbes, however, play a pivotal role in the removal of pollutants from our natural environment. Similarly, COPCs (trace elements and persistent organic pollutants) are well-known as toxic pollutants causing many severe problems for the physiological health of aquatic organisms, hence, for the health of ecosystems and people.

Understanding their role in the fate of microplastics in aquatic systems, particularly aquaculture facilities, and their transfer through the food chains allows us to collaborate with fishermen, farmers, and policymakers to consider and develop approaches to reduce risks to livestock and consumers.

Our 5 work areas

Our research is organised in five interlinked thematic areas.

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