UCI-led study finds coastal urbanization increases contamination in seafood

What do diapers, Barbie dolls, tires and tea bags have in common? They're among the 11 billion pieces of plastic waste littering coral reefs across the Asia-Pacific, a number anticipated to reach 17 billion by 2025.

Some debris can surprisingly wreak more havoc than those currently in the pollution spotlight. Take plastic straws: They've swept international news headlines, but discarded fishing lines and nets can be even more damaging after becoming entangled with coral.

It's all part of the in-depth research conducted by Joleah Lamb, a UCI assistant professor of ecology and biology. She was the first to link ocean disease to deadly bacteria, which hitchhike aboard plastic debris and attach to coral reefs.

The numbers are staggering: Corals in contact with plastic are 20 times more susceptible to disease. This is a critical threat to the environment and human health, as the introduction of plastic breeds bacteria in coral reefs linked to diseases like dysentery and cholera.

Lamb's underwater survey does more than just put numbers on a chart. It’s allowed UCI researchers to push boundaries and find novel solutions to combat the looming threat of this deadly duo. Follow Lamb’s tour of international waters and learn about progress made to save coral reefs from plastics and bacteria:

In Indonesia, Lamb's team found that seagrass has antimicrobial properties that can serve as a first line of defense. It not only traps debris, but also disinfects plastic waste. As a result, pharmaceutical companies are looking into seagrass as an antimicrobial agent.

Explosives and plastic bottles in Myanmar are threatening protected coral reefs. Lamb’s lab group set up underwater listening devices to track illegal dynamite fishing, recording an average of 80 blasts a day.

Stateside, they planted cages of mussels in 50 spots around Seattle's Puget Sound. The study will help determine if eelgrass — a species of seagrass — will protect mollusks from plastic litter pathogens.

Here in Southern California, an ongoing study of our coast and rivers will reveal how much microplastic ends up in wastewater.

"The main focus of the lab is to look at how global ocean health and human health are related,” Lamb says, “and to identify ways that marine ecosystems naturally reduce waterborne disease outbreaks."