Welcome to the Anthropocene: an age where the footprints of the industrialized world have trampled over every corner of the natural world – even inside bird eggs from one of the world’s most isolated wildernesses.
Researchers have recently detailed the discovery of phthalates, hormone-disrupting chemicals used in plastic production, within the eggs of northern fulmars in the remote stretches of the Canadian Arctic, The Times reports.
Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington DC this weekend, scientists from the Canadian Wildlife Service explained that the chemicals are believed to have leached in from plastic debris that the birds ingested while hunting for fish. The contaminants then made their way into the bloodstream of the birds and subsequently into their eggs’ yolk sack, the food source of the developing chick.
“It’s really tragic. That bird, from the very beginning of its development, will have those contaminants inside it,” said Dr Jennifer Provencher of the Canadian Wildlife Service, according to The Guardian.
Phthalates are added to plastic products and packaging to make them more flexible or durable, although they can also be found in products like paints, nail polish, hair spray, shampoo, soaps, perfumes, food, you name it. The specific phthalates found in the Arctic bird eggs in this study were SDPAs and BZT-UVs, added to plastics to stop them degrading and discoloring in sunlight.
Scientists are only just starting to understand the precise risk this band of chemicals pose to human and environmental health, however, their role as endocrine disruptors is particularly startling. Endocrine disruptors essentially mean that they interfere with the normal hormonal interactions between biological organisms and their environment. Studies have suggested that they could spark changes to the reproductive system, deformities, and increased rates of infertility.
“We know that these chemicals are often endocrine disruptors, and we know that they can interrupt hormonal development and cause deformations. But whether they actually cause any harm in the eggs is something we don’t know,” Provencher added. "The recognition that at least some of these contaminants are going into eggs really opens the door for all these other questions we should be asking in areas of much higher plastic concentrations.”
Just a few months ago, another study documented that over 70 percent of dolphins in Florida also contained evidence of phthalates. At the very least, this serves as another example of the far-reaching and unforeseen consequences of human behavior.