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Plastic pellets blanket Hong Kong beaches after typhoon

August 6, 2012 |  1:39 pm

Plastic pellets on Hong Kong beach

Hundreds of millions of tiny plastic pellets are washing up on Hong Kong beaches after a powerful typhoon sent “white plastic sacks of death” tumbling off a ship into the sea, environmental group Sea Shepherd Hong Kong said, warning that the spilled pellets could send chemicals up through the food chain.

Bits of plastic started deluging the shores in the wake of Typhoon Vicente, the worst such storm to hit Hong Kong in 13 years. The translucent pellets, known as nurdles, are used to make plastic products and were reportedly made by China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., also known as Sinopec. Sacks with its markings washed onshore as well, the Associated Press reported.

At Sam Pak Wan beach, local environmentalist Tracey Read was appalled to find that the beach was so covered with nurdles that it looked like it was blanketed in snow.

“The words from my son years ago echoed in my head, ‘Mum, will it ever snow in Hong Kong?’ ” Read wrote on her blog, saying the sight almost made her cry.  “Yes, Finn this week it has and the snow will last not just for a day but far beyond your life and that of your great-grandchildren!”

The accident spilled 165 tons of nurdles into the water, according to Hong Kong environmental officials, and the resulting mess at 10 beaches could take months to comb from the sand and sea. Volunteers and government crews worked with brooms, sieves and nets to try to pick out the plastic; the government said roughly half had been cleared as of Sunday.

Though Hong Kong officials say the plastic pellets are not themselves toxic, environmentalists warn that nurdles soak up other chemicals and toxins like sponges, growing more and more stained as they do. Birds, fish and sharks mistake nurdles for fish eggs and consume them, Sea Shepherd Hong Kong said, spreading the toxicity through the food chain to humans.

“The increased food safety risk is unlikely to be significant as wild fish locally caught only constitutes a very small part of our diet,” the Environmental Protection Department of Hong Kong said in a statement Sunday. No unusual fish activity or deaths had been reported.

Nonetheless, the official Center for Food Safety advised the public not to eat any fish “with abnormal appearance, smell and taste, as well as dead fish on the beach.”

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: A volunteer collects plastic pellets washed up on a bank of Lamma island during a cleanup operation in Hong Kong on Sunday. Credit: Kim Cheung / Associated Press

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