While the world continues to reel under the devastating impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, scientists have for the first time proven that viruses can survive and remain infectious by binding themselves to plastics in freshwater. The new study raises concerns about the impact it could have on human health.
Scientists found Rotavirus, which causes diarrhea, living up to three days in lake water by attaching itself to the surfaces of tiny beads of plastic pollution, called microplastics. These microplastics are so small that they could potentially be ingested by someone swimming.
The findings of the study have been published in the journal ScienceDirect and state that infectious virus particles were recovered from biofilm colonising microplastics and that their interaction with biofilm enhanced virus survival compared to the water phase.
Led by researchers from the University of Stirling, this is the first of its kind study to explore the issue of using water taken from the natural environment.
“Even if a wastewater treatment plant is doing everything it can to clean sewage waste, the water discharged still has microplastics in it, which are then transported down the river, into the estuary, and end up on the beach. We weren’t sure how well viruses could survive by ‘hitch-hiking’ on plastic in the environment, but they do survive, and they do remain infectious,” Professor Richard Quilliam, lead researcher on the project said in a statement.
Researchers tested two types of viruses those with an envelope, or “lipid coat” around them, such as the flu virus (they tested bacteriophage Phi6), and those without enteric viruses, such as rotavirus and norovirus (they tested rotavirus strain SA11). They found that in those with an envelope, the envelope quickly dissolved, and the virus was deactivated, whereas those without an envelope successfully bound to the microplastics and survived.
Microplastics are formed when plastic trash in the ocean breaks down from the sun’s rays and the motion of ocean waves. These tiny particles can be carried hundreds or thousands of miles away from the source by ocean currents, making it difficult to track and remove them.
Also Read | What is micro-plastic found in human blood?
Like all plastics, microplastics too are non-biodegradable, and it can take hundreds of years for them to degrade. In a startling discovery, these tiny plastics had been found in human blood, raising health worries and demonstrating the actual extent of plastics’ deadly grasp on the world.
They have been responsible for not only invading humans but also the depths of the Mariana Trench and even the top of Mount Everest. Researchers said that this microplastic came predominantly from packaging and while its impact on health is being studied in more detail, its presence in such places is surprising.