Alan Jamieson remembers seeing it for the first time: a small, black fiber floating in a tube of liquid. It resembled a hair, but when Jamieson examined it under a microscope, he realized that the fiber was clearly synthetic—a piece of plastic. And worryingly, his student Lauren Brooks had pulled it from the gut of a small crustacean living in one of the deepest parts of the ocean.
For the past decade, Jamieson, a marine biologist at Newcastle University, has been sending vehicles to the bottom of marine trenches, which can be as deep as the Himalayas are tall. Once there, these landers have collected amphipods—scavenger relatives of crabs and shrimp that thrive in the abyss. Jamieson originally wanted to know how these animals differ from one distant trench to another. But a few years ago, almost on a whim, he decided to analyze their body for toxic, human-made pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which have been banned for decades but which persist in nature for much longer.
The team found PCBs galore. Some amphipods were carrying levels 50 times higher than those seen in crabs from one of China’s most polluted rivers. When the news broke, Jamieson was inundated with calls from journalists and concerned citizens. And in every discussion, one question kept coming up: What about plastics?
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