Health & Science
Trash in the Arctic Ocean
The world’s seas have long been littered with trillions of tiny pieces of plastic—and a lot of it is ending up in the Arctic Ocean. The first major survey of the region’s icy waters found that the planet’s northernmost ocean is clogged with about 300 billion pieces of debris from things like plastic bottles, bags, and fishing lines. Carried there from the North Atlantic by a major ocean current, this seaborne junk has few ways to escape the “dead-end” ocean, reports The New York Times. The pollution is different from the “trash patches” that have accumulated in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans; rather than collecting in certain areas, the debris in the Arctic is spreading more evenly throughout the sea. “We don’t fully understand the consequences the plastic is having or will have in our oceans,” says study leader Andrés Cózar Cabañas. “What we do know is that these consequences will be felt at greater scale in an ecosystem like this.” Cabañas says further research is needed to determine whether ocean currents could eventually enable the plastic to work its way out of the region.
Scientists may have found an unlikely candidate to clean up the mounds of nonbiodegradable plastic trash in the world’s landfills: the humble wax worm. Federica Bertocchini, a developmental biologist and amateur beekeeper in Spain, first came up with the idea after finding her beehives infested with the beeswax-loving caterpillar larvae of wax moths. She put the grubs in a plastic bag—whereupon they immediately ate their way out. Plastic and wax have similar chemical structures. Bertocchini posited that in evolving to digest wax, wax worms may have also gained the ability to break down polyethylene, the world’s most common plastic. She took her theory to biochemists at the University of Cambridge, who found that 100 wax worms could gulp down 92 milligrams of polyethylene in about 12 hours and degrade plastic bags much faster than any known method. “If a single enzyme is responsible for this chemical process,” study co-author Paolo Bombelli tells CNN.com, “its reproduction on a large scale using biotechnological methods should be achievable.”
Diet soda and dementia
Sugar-free versions of soda may increase people’s risk of suffering a stroke or developing dementia, reports The Washington Post. Scientists at Boston University studied more than 4,000 people over a 10-year period. They found that those who consumed at least one artificially sweetened drink a day were almost three times more likely to have a stroke or be diagnosed with dementia than those who had one or fewer a week. To the researchers’ surprise, a parallel study of sugary drinks did not find a similar association. Matthew Pase, the study’s lead author, offered several caveats on the findings, most notably that the actual number of diagnoses was very low and that the results showed only correlation, not causation. He also urged people not to see the study as an incentive to switch to regular soda, noting that sugary drinks have been linked to obesity, poor memory, and accelerated brain aging. But Pase did say the findings suggested consumers should be “cautious” about their diet soda intake and switch to water or other unsweetened drinks.
Health scare of the week
Pollution reaches bloodstream
Tiny airborne pollutants from power plants, cars, and trucks may be able to get through the lungs’ filter system and work their way into the bloodstream, new research suggests. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K. asked 14 healthy volunteers to inhale air filled with harmless gold nanoparticles. They found that these nanoparticles were detectable in the participants’ blood within 15 minutes and were still in their blood and urine three months later. When the researchers then tested 12 people who were due to undergo surgery to clear blocked arteries, they found that the gold nanoparticles accumulated in the fatty plaques that grew inside the patients’ blood vessels. If the reactive compounds found in air pollution act in the same way, they could increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, and other health issues. “There is no doubt that air pollution is a killer,” Jeremy Pearson from the British Heart Foundation charity tells Reuters.com. “This study brings us a step closer to solving the mystery of how air pollution damages our cardiovascular health.” ■