Plastics aren't just choking coral reefs, they're spreading disease, too.

January 29, 2018, 3:51 p.m.
A plastic bag floats near a coral reef.
Photo: Richard Whitcombe/Shutterstock

As if plastic wasn't enough of a threat to coral reefs, it's also responsible for spreading diseases.

A study published in Science examined 159 reefs in the Asian-Pacific region and found that 11 billion pieces of plastic larger than 5 centimeters — ranging from bags to chairs to Nike-branded towels — had wrapped themselves around the reefs, particularly around spikier reefs where snagging was easier.

The scientists didn't include microplastics in their estimate.

Just like you and me, coral can become sick, and the likelihood of diseases infecting coral increased from 4 percent to 89 percent in the presence of plastics. The infections include white and black band diseases, both of which eat away at coral tissue and expose their skeletons to the elements.

Plastic could be contributing to the spread of disease in any number of ways, from depriving the coral of oxygen and sunlight to cutting through the tissue to simply passing along diseases by its very presence. A different study showed that plastic ocean debris is covered in the bacteria that causes white band disease, for instance.

Coral reefs are already struggling thanks to global warming, so better waste management, including reducing our use of disposable plastic products, is a vital part of keeping reefs healthy.

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