In August 2020, Sustainable Seas Trust (SST) officially opened their newest addition to the research department – a laboratory! This laboratory was made possible through the support of Norway for the Towards Zero Plastics to the Seas of Africa project which it is funding.
SST’s researchers are conducting important research into the potential presence of heavy metals and plastic related pollutants in mussels along the coast of Port Elizabeth. This research forms part of a more comprehensive study into the potential contamination of sea food, which will include fish species.
The SST researchers went on their first sampling trip from 19-21 August. They collected 420 mussel samples from seven sites. When the mussels arrive in the laboratory they are removed from their shells, weighed, processed through a freeze drier, homogenized and then sent to a national laboratory for heavy metal analyses and a Norwegian laboratory for plastic pollutant analyses.
“It’s very exciting working in a brand-new lab that we have been able to design ourselves,” says SST microplastics researcher, Amarein Fourie. “A lot of work went into planning the lab, and it is satisfying to experience it all coming together.”
The laboratory is designed to prevent the contamination of samples as microplastics are found in air, dust and clothes. Therefore, it is equipped with specialised equipment, such as a laminar flow cabinet, which ensures samples are not contaminated during preparation by blowing clean, filtered air over them towards the researcher. In addition, the laboratory also has a freeze dryer, which dries samples under vacuum at –80°C to enable long term storage at room temperature.
“We aim to publish the results of this study in a scientific journal and to raise awareness among the public about the level of pollutants in the bay, hoping to spark a sense of stewardship,” says Fourie. “We don’t want to cause panic about health risks, but rather inspire people to take action and care for the environment.”
“It is important to note that the health risk of these pollutants depends on their concentration in the mussels. We might detect pollutants at very low levels, in which case it may not pose a threat to human health when consumed,” adds Fourie.
The SST researchers hypothesise that they will find more heavy metal and plastic related pollutants in mussels from inside the bay compared to the mussels outside of the bay. This is because the mouths of the Baakens and Swartkops rivers, which run through the city and are heavily polluted, open into the bay. Additionally, the bay has a lot of shipping traffic which may further add to pollutants inside the bay.
“There are limited data available on microplastics and plastic pollutants from marine environments in Africa, including Algoa Bay, and by doing this study we contribute to the data and knowledge that is currently available,” says Fourie.