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J Environ Sci Health A Tox Hazard Subst Environ Eng. 2018 Jul 29;53(9):866-875. doi: 10.1080/10934529.2018.1455381. Epub 2018 Apr 6.

Degradation of polyethylene microplastics in seawater: Insights into the environmental degradation of polymers.

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a Department of Chemistry , University of Aveiro , Campus de Santiago, Aveiro , Portugal.
b CESAM, University of Aveiro , Campus de Santiago, Aveiro , Portugal.
c CICECO, University of Aveiro , Campus de Santiago, Aveiro , Portugal.


Microplastic contamination of aquatic environments has become an increasingly alarming problem. These, defined as particles <5 mm, are mostly formed due to the cracking and embrittlement of larger plastic particles. Recent reports show that the increasing presence of microplastics in the environment could have significant deleterious consequences over the health of marine organisms, but also across the food chain. Herein, we have studied the effects of artificial seawater on polyethylene (PE)-based beads by exposing them up to eight weeks to saltwater in stirred batch reactors in the dark and examined the structural and morphological changes these endured. Electron microscopy observations showed that artificial seawater induces severe microcracking of the pellets' surfaces. Additionally, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) analyses evidenced the formation of oxidized groups whenever these particles were exposed to water and an increase in organic matter content of the waters in which the pellets were kept was evidenced by Raman spectroscopy. There were also noticeable consequences in the thermal stability of the polyethylene pellets, as determined by thermogravimetric studies (TGA). Furthermore, the parallel exposure of polyethylene pellets to UV radiation yielded less pronounced effects, thus underscoring its lower preponderance in the degradation of this material. These results highlight the importance of determining the mechanisms of degradation of microplastics in marine settings and what the implications may be for the environment. Overall, the herein presented results show that a relatively short period of time of accelerated exposure can yield quantifiable chemical and physical impacts on the structural and morphological characteristics of PE pellets.


Degradation; UV radiation; microplastics; polyethylene; saltwater

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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