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A collaborative bid led by ESR scientist Olga Pantos and Grant Northcott (Northcott Research Consultants) has been awarded more than $12.5 million in government funding to continue research on the impact of microplastics and the threat to New Zealand’s ecosystems, animals and people.

The $12,536,205.00 over five years, was announced today by the Minister of Research, Science and Innovation, Dr Megan Woods.

Microplastics, which include beads, fibres and fragments, are a globally significant environmental pollutant, found in a broad range of ecosystems, and consumed by a diverse range of animals

In New Zealand, scientists, regulators and Māori have become increasingly concerned about the impacts of microplastics on the country’s unique species and ecosystems, tāonga, and human health.

In its funding bid, the collaborators said that initial national data showed New Zealand’s coastal and freshwater environments were contaminated, but there was limited information to assess the risk microplastics pose.

Dr Pantos says the project will undertake a rigorous assessment of the extent of microplastics contamination, advance research on the mediation of that threat and will add to the long term well-being of New Zealand’s environment, people and economy.

The potential impacts of microplastics ranged from risks to human health to ecosystem collapse. Research programmes in Europe, Australia and North America had confirmed the presence of microplastics in a range of environments, and their long-term impacts on organisms. “Plastics pose a significant risk to the ecosystem. Fish and other sea life will eat the plastics. Chemicals associated with the plastics may enter their tissues and may result in bioaccumulation and biomagnification, which potentially could have an impact up through the food chain,” says Dr Pantos.

“Research into this area is fairly new to New Zealand and we need to do a lot more testing on a larger scale to see how much plastic is out there, not only in the marine but also freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems, and understand the risks they pose to ecosystems, animals and potentially humans.”

While there is a lot of evidence of the detrimental effects of large plastic items on animals and ecosystems, knowledge of the amount and distribution of microplastic waste and its impacts on organisms (including species that are food sources for humans) and ecosystems is still lacking.

Microplastic pollution has become so invasive and ubiquitous in all environments the United Nations Environment Programme recently likened the impacts to climate change, due to its global scale and the magnitude of potential risks it poses to ecosystem health and resilience, human health, and biosecurity.

The research focuses on two primary case study sites (located in Auckland and Nelson region) predominated by urban and rural/agricultural land uses and their respective sources of microplastics. Dr Pantos will co-lead the project with Grant Northcott from Northcott Research Consultants together with key collaborators from Cawthron Institute and Auckland university

Other ESR staff in science team: Louise Weaver, Joanne Kingsbury, Pierre-Yves DuPont, Virginia Baker

ESR Chief Executive Keith McLea says he’s incredibly proud of Dr Pantos’s achievement in being awarded funding for such important research.

The project is one of 69 awarded funding through the 2018 round of the Endeavour Fund. This is New Zealand’s largest and most prestigious research and science contestable fund.

 

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