Plastic in the Oceans Increasing Risk of Disease in Coral Reefs

An aerial view of plastic floating over coral in Myanmar.

An aerial view of plastic floating over coral in Myanmar. Courtesy of Kathryn Berry

More than 11 billion pieces of plastic are lodged within coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific region. According to a new study published in the journal Science, as this plastic gets tangled, it often cuts the coral, increasing the risk of infection and disease outbreaks by as much 89 percent.

The study, which looked at 124,000 reef-building corals from 159 reefs, estimates that the number of plastic pieces caught in Asia-Pacific coral could increase by 40 percent by 2025, further increasing the risk of disease. More than 275 million people rely on coral reefs for food, coastal protection, tourism income, and cultural value.

“We don’t know the exact mechanisms, but plastics make ideal vessels for colonizing microscopic organisms that could trigger disease if they come into contact with corals,” Joleah Lamb, a marine biologist at the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Australia and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “For example, plastic items such as those commonly made of polypropylene, like bottle caps and toothbrushes, have been shown to become heavily inhabited by bacteria that are associated with a globally devastating group of coral diseases known as white syndromes.”