Our oceans are polluted and full of plastic. Regardless of its source, plastic pollution has a devastating impact on marine life. Our very life source, that holds so much wonder. So much yet to be explored and so much opportunity for our future. Along with our day to day activities whether that is for work or for fun. The ocean has such a deep impact on all our lives. Yet we are the ones responsible for damaging so much of this precious ecosystem that we rely on. I want to take you through the damage that has been caused. The impact on humans and what we can all do to improve this serious problem.
Ocean in Distress
When we think of public health risks, we may not consider the ocean as a factor. But the health of the ocean is intimately tied to our health. One sign of an ocean in distress is an increase in beach or shellfish harvesting. Intensive use of our ocean and runoff from land-based pollution sources. Are just two of many factors that stress our fragile ecosystems. These increasingly lead to human health concerns. Waterborne infectious diseases, harmful algal bloom toxins & contaminated seafood. Along chemical pollutants are other signals. As we can threaten the health of our ocean, so, too, can our ocean threaten our health. And it is not public health alone that may be threatened. Our coastal economies, too, could be at significant risk.
Pollution has put our oceans at the brink of disaster
Every year more than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans. But how does this pollution affect humans and what can we and should we do to stop this?
Plastic and other forms of pollution are ending up in our marine life, and it’s making its way into our food chain. The ocean is full of an endless array of potential food sources for ocean creatures. Everything from microscopic plankton all the way up to giant squid and whales. Are used as potential food for a hungry member of the food chain.
Each plant and animal play its own role in sustaining the world’s largest ecosystem. This is the way nature intended to maintain a healthy balance across our world. However, due to the ever-growing waste of humanity. We are upsetting this balance. As a global community, we are unable to implement sustainable habits. We produce a lot of garbage, and all that garbage has to end up somewhere. Often the philosophy, “out of sight, out of mind.” Becomes the prevalent solution to our garbage problem. We bury our trash underground, or simply toss it into the nearest body of water, and turn away as it sinks into the abyss.
How Ocean Pollution Impacts Marine Life and All of Us
The world’s oceans are a magical, diverse and abundant ecosystem that mankind needs in order to survive.
The oceans cover over 72 percent of the planet’s surface. It provides over 97 percent of the world’s water supply and over 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe. We have so much to thank the oceans for. However, they are threatened daily by natural and manmade pollution. Ocean pollution comes in many forms. The largest factor affecting the oceans is plastic.
Over the last decade, we have produced more plastic than we have in the last 100 years. This sharp increase in plastic entering our waters harms not only marine life, but also humanity.
Plastic kills fish, birds, marine mammals and sea turtles. It destroys habitats and even affects animals’ mating rituals. This can have devastating consequences and can wipe out entire species.
Each year, billions of pounds of rubbish and other pollutants enter the ocean.
Each year, billions of pounds of rubbish and other pollutants enter the ocean. Where does this pollution come from? Where does it go? Some of the debris ends up on our beaches, washed in with the waves and tides. Some debris sinks, some is eaten by marine animals that mistake it for food. While some accumulates in ocean gyres. Other forms of pollution that impact the health of the ocean come from sources like oil spills. Or from accumulation of many dispersed sources, such as fertilizer from our yards.
Where does pollution come from?
The majority of pollutants that make their way into the ocean come from human activities along the coastlines and far inland. One of the biggest sources of pollution is nonpoint source pollution. Which occurs as a result of runoff. Nonpoint source pollution can come from many sources. Like septic tanks, vehicles, farms, livestock ranches, and timber harvest areas. Pollution that comes from a single source. Like an oil or chemical spill, is known as point source pollution. Point source pollution events often have large impacts. But fortunately, they occur less often. Discharge from faulty or damaged factories. Or water treatment systems is also considered point source pollution.
Nutrients and algal blooms: Can also have a negative impact?
Sometimes it is not the type of material. But its concentration determines whether a substance is a pollutant. For example, the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus are essential elements for plant growth. However, if they are too abundant in a body of water. They can stimulate an overgrowth of algae, triggering an event called an algal bloom. Harmful algal blooms (HABs), also known as “red tides”. Grow rapidly and produce toxic effects that can affect marine life. Sometimes even humans. Excess nutrients entering a body of water, either through natural or human activities. Can also result in hypoxia or dead zones. When large amounts of algae sink and decompose in the water. The decomposition process consumes oxygen and depletes the supply available to healthy marine life. Many of the marine species that live in these areas either die or, if they are mobile (such as fish), leave the area.
Using ecological forecasting. NOAA is able to predict changes in ecosystems in response to HABs and other environmental drivers. These forecasts provide information about how people, economies, and communities may be affected. For example. The Harmful Algal Bloom Monitoring System. Developed by NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science. This provides information to the public and local authorities. This helps to decide whether beaches need to be closed temporarily to protect public health.
Marian debris is a persistent pollution problem that reaches throughout the entire ocean and Great Lakes. Our ocean and waterways are polluted with a wide variety of marine debris. Ranging from tiny microplastics, smaller than 5 mm. To derelict fishing gear and abandoned vessels. Worldwide, hundreds of marine species have been negatively impacted by marine debris. Which can harm or kill an animal when it is ingested or they become entangled. Then can threaten the habitats they depend on. Marine debris can also interfere with navigation safety. Along with potentially pose a threat to human health.
All marine debris comes from people with a majority of it originating on land. Then entering the ocean and Great Lakes. Through littering, poor waste management practices, storm water discharge. Also with extreme natural events such as tsunamis and hurricanes. Some debris, such as derelict fishing gear, can also come from ocean-based sources. This lost or abandoned gear is a major problem. Because it can continue to capture and kill wildlife, damage sensitive habitats. It can even compete with and damage active fishing gear.
Local, national, and international efforts are needed to address this environmental problem. The Save our Seas Act of 2018 amends and reauthorizes the Marine Debris Act. To promote international action. Authorize cleanup and response actions. Also increase coordination among federal agencies on this topic.
Garbage patches: What and where are they?
They are large areas of the ocean where rubbish, fishing gear, and other marine debris collects. The term “garbage patch.” Is a misleading nickname. Making many believe that garbage patches are “islands of trash” that are visible from afar. These areas are actually made up of debris ranging in size. From microplastics to large bundles of derelict fishing gear.
The Three Plastic Islands
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex or gyre, is located in the central North Pacific Ocean. It is larger than the state of Texas. There are also garbage patches in the Indian and Atlantic ocean. The patches are defined as containing a higher amount of plastic compared to surrounding oceans. To date, five patches in total have been discovered.
Plastics are transported and converge in the ocean where currents meet. This means that huge plastic islands are made as a result. SES (Sea Education Society). Scientists studied plastics in the Atlantic. There calculated there are 580,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer.
Sources of Plastic Toxins Entering the Oceanic Food Chain
As far as plastic entering the ocean, about 20% of the trash comes from ships and platforms that are offshore. The rest sources from litter being blown into the sea. Picked up by tides on the beach, or intentional garbage dumping. The worst part is, these plastics don’t biodegrade. So they break up into tiny pieces that are consumed by fish and sea mammals. Plastic is killing more than 100,000 sea turtles and birds a year. From ingestion and entanglement. To learn more visit Project Green Bag.
Chemicals in plastics are released into the water as well as the atmosphere. Fish easily become contaminated from the chemicals in the water. This is a direct link of how plastic chemicals enter the food chain.
Plastics getting to Humans Impacting Health
Different plastics spread throughout the ocean. As Styrofoam breaks into smaller parts. Polystyrene components in it sink lower in the ocean. So that the pollutant spreads throughout the sea column.
In fact, not only do the toxins in plastic affect the ocean. But acting like sponges, they soak up other toxins from outside sources before entering the ocean. As these chemicals are ingested by animals in the ocean, this is not good for humans. We as humans ingest contaminated fish and mammals.
For more information on this topic on toxins in the ocean. See this article by National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/8/plastic-breaks-down-in-ocean-after-all-and-fast/
There are different types of ways that plastic is dangerous for humans. Direct toxicity from plastics comes from lead, cadmium, and mercury. These toxins have also been found in many fish in the ocean, which is very dangerous for humans. Diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) contained in some plastics, is a toxic carcinogen. Other toxins in plastics are directly linked to cancers, birth defects, immune system problems, and childhood developmental issues. To learn more on effects of plastics on humans visit the Ecology Center
Other types of toxic plastics are BPA or health-bisphenol-A, along with phthalates (mentioned above). Both of these are of great concern to human health. BPA is used in many things including plastic bottles and food packaging materials. Over time the polymer chains of BPA break down, and can enter the human body. This happens in many ways from drinking contaminated water to eating a fish that is exposed to the broken down toxins. Specifically, BPA is a known chemical that interferes with human hormonal function.
Rolf Halden. Associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and Arizona State University. He has studied plastics adverse effects on humans. He has thus far concluded that an exact outline of health effects of plastics on humans is almost impossible to determine. This is due to the fact that the problem of plastic contamination in humans is globally spread. There are almost no unexposed subjects. That being said, it is evident that the chemicals are not healthy for humans.
Emerging Health Threats
Whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals eat much of the same seafood that we consume. We also swim in shared coastal waters. Unlike us. They are exposed to potential ocean health threats. Such as toxic algae or poor water quality 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These mammals, and other sentinel species. Can shed important light on how the condition of ocean environments may affect human health now and in the future. As the principal stewardship agency responsible for protecting marine mammals in the wild. NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. Supports a network of national and international projects. These aimed at investigating health concerns. This research can not only warn us about potential public health risks. It can lead to improved management of the protected species. But may also lead to new medical discoveries.
Prevention of Contamination
As Rolf Halden asserts. The only way for this unsustainable plastic production to decrease. Would be a global staggering petroleum supply, because of environmental worry. About 8% of the world’s oil use is from manufacturing plastics.
There are efforts to protect the oceans from plastic pollutants along with human health. But they are mostly grassroots organizations.
As far as protecting yourself from contamination. It is probably best not to have a diet that consists mainly of fish, since most is probably contaminated. However, one of the most effective things we could all do as members of this fragile ecosystem is to be responsible for our rubbish. When we have the opportunity, we should try to avoid buying products packaged in plastic. We should always recycle plastic when we do use it. At the store, request a paper bag instead of plastic, or bring your own. Use a reusable water bottle, and of course don’t litter.
The Role Humans Play
As quoted by UN Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner,
“Marine debris. Rubbish in our oceans. Are a symptom of our throw-away society and our approach to how we use our natural resources.”
Our tendency as humans to be irresponsible about cleaning up after ourselves is about to get us in trouble. We risk losing many species in the ocean as well as negatively affecting ourselves. The average person produces half a pound of plastic waste every day. No wonder the oceans are filling up with waste!
I think part of the problem is that we don’t recognize how this issue starts with the individual. There are obviously lifestyle changes we can make to solve this problem. We just have to be willing to accept this issue and look past our denial. The government also needs to make regulations on plastics if anything is going to change. Surprisingly, there is little to no information on governmental websites about pollution in the oceans. I think they are afraid to address the problem; it is a costly fix. However there have been some treaties formed to minimize the amount of trash entering the oceans. This is still not enough. To see more on EPA laws and treaties visit the US Environmental Protection Agency. These grassroots organizations are vital to the protection of the oceans. Striving to get information out about this tragic pollution. We should really all be involved though, it is everyone’s responsibility. Let’s make these changes before it is too late and we kill all oceanic life, or even our own.
And so the work continues.
We are aware that there are effects from plastics on animals at nearly all levels of biological organization. We know enough to act to reduce plastic pollution from entering the oceans, lakes, and rivers. Nations can enact bans on certain types of plastic. Focusing on those that are the most abundant and problematic. Chemical engineers can formulate polymers that biodegrade. Consumers can eschew single-use plastics. And industry and government can invest in infrastructure. This to capture and recycle these materials before they reach the water.
What we must do to stop this pollution!
Why I started this fight against ocean pollution. I have dived a lot of great places around the world. However on one dive, a dive site I had dove a number of times. But this time was different. We were diving in Malaysia at Surat Thani.
This was usually a place with a lot of life, big and small, but on this dive, I couldn’t see anything but plastic. So much of it. Rubbish as long as the eye could see, it was shocking.
We dove quickly because there was nothing good down there. On the surface we could see it as well and days after this dive, I’d still find small pieces of plastic on my equipment.
Two days after the dive I decided to go back to the same area. This time everything was gone, some were left on the beaches, but most of it had moved along the current.
This made me look into what we’re actually doing to our oceans. And let me just say, it’s not good.
What we should do to help?
What you do on land can change the fate of what goes on offshore. Small changes in habits can have a massive impact on improving our oceans.
- Keep your sewer drains clear https://www.familyhandyman.com/list/how-to-prevent-clogged-drains/
Prevent rubbish and chemicals from flowing into the sea. Keeping your property’s drains clear is your responsibility.
- Dispose of products properly https://www.epa.gov/hw/household-hazardous-waste-hhw
Household cleaning products, batteries, paint and pesticides can threaten water quality.
- Reuse and recycle https://www.epa.gov/recycle
And opt for no packaging when possible. Carry a reusable water bottle, carry a cotton tote bag and recycle when possible.
- Plant an organic garden https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/home/gardening/advice/g2104/organic-gardening-tips-460309/
Pesticides from gardens and lawns can wash into the ocean.
Overfishing, loss of habitat and market demand has decreased fish populations. When shopping or dining out, choose seafood that is sustainably sourced.
- Respect the beach http://www.beachapedia.org/Respect_the_Beach
Take your rubbish with you after a day at the beach, and don’t remove rocks and coral.
- Explore responsibly https://www.exploreworldwide.com/blog/everything-you-should-know-about-responsible-travel
Next time you’re off on a dive, cruise or kayak – be mindful of the marine life around you. Find some eco-friendly tours and packages that will respect the marine environment.
Our ocean is instrumental for our future. Food, sport, leisure, natural beauty & economics. The ocean provides plenty for the human race. It is our duty to project it and all the marine life within it. We are currently treating the ocean like our own junkyard. With the results being catastrophic for all. What is worth saving if not our beautiful oceans. Respect the ocean by keeping it clean for generations to come..
WHAT EXPERTS ARE SAYING ABOUT PLASTIC & HEALTH
Ruthann Rudel, Director of Research, Silent Spring Institute: “Plastics are made of a complex mix of chemicals, many of them are endocrine disruptors or are of concern for other health effects. A recent National Academy of Sciences report found that the important vinyl ingredient DEHP is “a presumed hazard to human reproduction” at current exposures, and that’s just one plastics ingredient! Plastics also contain many toxic additives, such as flame retardants, metals, anti-microbials, non-stick coatings, and more. The fantasy that plastics are an inexpensive material is just that – a fantasy that fails to acknowledge the tremendous costs we all pay.”
Erica Jackson, Community Outreach & Communications Specialist, FracTracker Alliance: “The pervasiveness of plastic is a problem that spans space and time- it’s all around us and it lasts for centuries. Therefore, the importance of this assessment of plastic’s cumulative health impact cannot be understated. We know enough to justify taking immediate action to reduce our dependence on plastic, and that starts by keeping plastic feedstocks – oil and gas – in the ground.”
Graham Forbes, Greenpeace Global Plastics Project Leader: “The health risks of the plastic pollution crisis have been ignored for far too long, and must be at the forefront of all decisions on plastics moving forward. Corporations and governments are risking our health to maintain the status quo and keep profits flowing. It’s not just our oceans and marine animals that are suffering from this addiction to plastics, it’s all of us. While there is still much to learn about all of the impacts of plastics on human health, we know enough to adopt a precautionary principle and start to phase out these throwaway plastics for good.”
some useful links
1. How Does Plastic Get Into The Ocean? Project Green Bag
2. Plastic Contamination in the Atlantic Ocean Earth Times, Kirsten E. Silven
3. Plastic Breaks Down in Ocean, After All- And Fast National Geographic
4. Human Health Warning UN New Centre
5. Adverse Health Effects of Plastics Ecology Center
6. Impacts of plastics on human health and ecosystems News Medical
Anderson, T.L. (2013). One world, one ocean, one mission. Earth Common Journal, 3(1).
Andrews, G. (2013). Plastics in the ocean affecting human health. serc.carleton.edu
Conserve Energy Future (2015). What is ocean pollution? conserve-energy-future.com
Hanlon, P. (2012). Heavy metal fish: How mercury ends up on your plate. grist.org
Jambeck, R.J. et al. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 347 (13).
MarineBio. (2015). Ocean pollution. marinebio.org
Merkl, A. (2015). Ocean plastic is likely disappearing into the food chain, new study indicates. theguardian.com
GroenForskel (2016). A sustainable guide. Groenforskel.dk
National Geographic. (2015). Save the plankton, breathe freely. education.nationalgeographic.co.uk
National Geographic. (2015). Things you can do to save the ocean. ocean.nationalgeographic.com
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2015). Ocean. noaa.gov
Thank You Ocean (2015). Water pollution. thankyouocean.org
The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited. (2014). Oil tanker spill statistics 2014. itopf.com
The World Counts. (2014). How does pollution affect humans? theworldcounts.com
Water Pollution Guide. (2015). Marine dumping. water-pollution.org.uk
United Nations. (2013). UN Convention on the Law of the Sea turns 30. un.org