There is no doubt that plastic pollution in oceans is a growing worldwide problem. The internet is full of images of seabirds and other marine animals entangled in plastic waste, and animals starve because their guts are blocked with plastic bags.

Image: The Economist

But the problem goes much deeper than this. Much plastic pollution is in the form of microplastics, tiny fragments less than five micrometres in size and invisible to the naked eye. Our new research shows that these microplastics are even getting into tiny flying insects such as mosquitoes. And this means the plastic can eventually contaminate animals in a more unlikely environment: the air.

Microplastics can come from larger plastic items as they break down, but are also released directly into waste water in their millions in the form of tiny beads found in many cosmetic products including face wash and toothpaste (though these are now banned in many countries). Many tiny animals can’t tell the difference between their food and microplastics so end up eating them. Once inside an animal, the plastic can transfer via the food chain into fish and other creatures and eventually become a potential health problem for humans.

By studying mosquitoes, we have found a previously unknown way for plastic to pollute the environment and contaminate the food chain. Our new paper, published in Biology Letters, shows for the first time that microplastics can be kept inside a water-dwelling animal as they grow from one life stage to another.

Although most microplastic research has focused on the sea, plastic pollution is also a serious problem in freshwater, including rivers and lakes. Much of the freshwater research has concentrated on animals that live in the water throughout their life. But freshwater insects such as mosquitoes start their lives (as eggs) in water and, after several stages, eventually fly away when they grow up.

Testing the mosquitoes

It occurred to us that aquatic insects might carry plastics out of the water if they were able to keep the plastics in their body through their development. We tested this possibility by feeding microplastics to mosquito larvae in a laboratory setting. We fed the aquatic young in their third larvae stage food with or without microplastic beads.

We then took samples of the animals when the larvae shed their skin to become larger fourth-stage larvae, when they transformed into a non-feeding stage called a pupa, and when they emerged from the water as a flying adult. We found the beads in all the life stages, although the numbers went down as the animals developed.

We were able to locate and count the microplastic beads because they were fluorescent. We found beads in the gut and in the mosquito version of the kidney, an organ that we know survives the development process intact. This shows that not only do aquatic insects such as mosquitoes eat both sizes of microplastics, they can keep them in their gut and kidney as they develop from a feeding juvenile larva up to a flying adult.

In this way, any flying insect that spends part of its life in water can become a carrier of plastic pollution. And flying insects are eaten in their thousands by predatory insects in the air such as dragonflies as well as by birds and bats.

Our results have important implications since any aquatic insect that can eat microplastics in the water could potentially carry them in their body to their flying stage where they can move the plastics into new food chains. As a result, freshwater plastic pollution is a problem that has implications far beyond those of water quality and eventual marine pollution.

Clearly these results raise a number of questions, including what effect microplastics have on the survival and development of mosquitoes through their life stages. And we still need to examine the effect of different types and sizes of plastics on more species to see how widespread an issue this could become.