It’s like Mother Nature’s twisted karmic retribution, and it tastes so deceptively good when it’s disguised in bites of a savory fillet of grilled trout — unknowingly, we’re ingesting cancer-causing plastic compounds with each forkfull. These chemicals are hiding in the flesh of fish — remnants of the plastic garbage that we toss into the ocean.
The presence of these chemicals in our food has been puzzling scientists for quite some time. Why are fish eating the plastic that’s floating around in the water? Are they just that dumb?
As this new study suggests, we’re unknowingly deceiving fish — to fish, water-borne plastic fumes smell like delicious food. Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducted an investigation that confirmed it: When anchovies were exposed to water that had been scented with ocean-soaked plastic, their behavior alarmingly paralleled their behavior in food-scented waters.
Waterlogged plastic becomes overgrown with odor-producing microorganisms through a process called biofouling. The process is inevitable for any and all types of plastic we discard, no matter how clean it is before being tossed.
Matthew Savoca, one of the authors of the study, explained that the plastic also sometimes looks similar to food from the fish’s point of view. Between the smell and the appearance, plastic dons a rather convincing fish food disguise.
Fish do experience negative health effects from consuming plastic, which isn’t all that surprising. What is surprising is that these effects are often invisible and aren’t fatal — so humans are likely to pick up plastic-contaminated fish to sell and eat without even noticing.
“It's a sad connection but, unfortunately, for a lot of people what gets them interested or concerned is when it might actually affect them,” Savoca told Motherboard. “People are sad about what happens to animals, but they might not think it's the end of the world. But if we're eating toxic fish, that's a problem.”
The accidental consumption of plastic gets a lot of bad press above the surface — we’re quite concerned about artificial chemicals and their effects on the human body. BPAs, DEHP, and other frightening acronyms have been linked to cancer, high blood pressure, and even fertility.
This study does muddy the water a bit regarding the healthfulness of eating fish, but it doesn’t offer any suggestions for eradicating plastic compounds from the water, or from our fish. We’ve dumped a whole lot of trash in our oceans already, meaning we have significant cause to fret over even the healthiest of seafood orders.