Tons of potentially toxic debris is threatening miles of coastlines and seas around western Sri Lanka after a fire on a ship led to the leak of nitric acid and nurdles — the small, lentil-sized pellets that are melted into all kinds of plastic products.

Sri Lankan authorities are racing to clear tons of nurdles blanketing the South Asian country’s usually pristine beaches and threatening fishing industries and wildlife tens of miles away. There are additional fears that the nurdles themselves could be contaminated with chemicals from the ship.

Here’s what to know about nurdles, the granules at the heart of one of Sri Lanka’s worst environmental crises.

What to know

  • What are nurdles?
  • How do they impact the environment?
  • How can they be cleaned up?