Got fibers in your oysters? C of C students find plenty in area bivalves, part of troubling trend in ocean pollution

Ariel Imler (left) and Ariel Christensen, both College of Charleston seniors, collected and studied oysters from Bull’s Island, Charleston Harbor and Folly Beach (shown here) for a class project that showed deposits of microscopic fibers in the shellfish Wednesday.

Wade Spees

The latest disturbing bits of pollution to show up in Lowcountry seafood are your clothes.

Two College of Charleston seniors conducting class research on microfibers in local oysters found amounts so startling that they doubted the results until follow-up tests confirmed them.

“Everything lit up so quickly. It fluoresced so much. We weren’t expecting to see so many fibers,” said Ariel Imler, of College of Charleston.

Microfibers are tiny synthetic fibers that come off clothes in the wash.

They join a host of other manmade waste such as flame retardants, antibiotics and other prescription medicines discharged with treated effluent from wastewater plants into the stream, that have been found in its creatures.

Nobody knows yet what effect the wastes have on water quality, animal or human health, but troubling studies of that also are starting to emerge.

The “contaminants of emerging concern” are more signs that the “clean” waters of the Lowcountry are not nearly as clean as they seem. Pollution from stormwater runoff already has been shown by tests to be deteriorating the water in feeder creeks.

The contaminants “are going to be the issue of our generation,” said Andrew Wunderley, Charleston Waterkeeper program director. Flame retardants have been found in dolphins from Charleston Harbor in the concentrations that are found in workers in the factory, he said.

With the Lowcountry on the cusp of another growth boom, the next 10-15 years could determine “whether we’re something special or we’re another coastal community that’s degraded everything to the point where it’s undrinkable, uneatable, unswimmable and unusable,” he said.

Imler and Ariel Christensen studied oyster gill filaments with a high-powered epifluorescent microscope.

The two seniors sampled five oysters from each of three sites: off the Battery, Folly River and off Little Bull Island. The fibers are so prevalent that they were found in the Bull’s Bay sample, which the researchers hoped would be clean enough to use as a control. Fibers were found in each of the 15 oysters.

Professor Phil Dustan, who oversaw the research, said what the students found is being found in other studies in England and elsewhere. Pollutants from broken-down plastics, such as bottles and bags, have been found in vast eddies in the deep ocean.

The fibers have been shown to work through cell membranes and get into the circulatory system, he said.

“I can see us getting to the point where plastic is treated as hazardous waste,” he said. “We can’t keep throwing plastic around indiscriminately. It’s getting in our food.”

Christensen said after she made the first finding of the fibers in oysters, she was invited to a dinner and couldn’t eat oysters that were served.

“It makes you think about the effect you’re having,” Imler said.

Wunderley of the waterkeeper group said the various study results concern him.

“We’re not alarmed and we certainly don’t want to scare anybody from eating the fish. But I think we can do better than we’re doing,” he said. “The community needs to tackle (the problem) before it gets to the point where the dolphin can’t live, to where we can’t eat the food out of the water.”

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