A sobering new international report highlights the critical state of the world’s increasingly polluted oceans and the threat that degradation poses to life in the seas and the humans who depend on it.
It’s a chilling and exhaustive summation, just published in Annals of Global Health [open access] and it begins this way:
The oceans are vast. They cover more than 70% of the earth’s surface, hold 97% of the world’s water, host some of the planet’s most diverse ecosystems, and support economies in countries around the world. Microscopic organisms in the seas are a major source of atmospheric oxygen. By absorbing more than 90% of the excess heat released into the earth’s environment and nearly one-third of carbon dioxide emissions, the oceans slow planetary warming and stabilize the global climate.
The oceans are essential to human health and well-being. They provide food to billions, livelihoods for millions and are the source of multiple essential medicines. They have traditional cultural value and are a source of joy, beauty, peace, and recreation. The oceans are particularly important to the health and well-being of people in small island nations, the high Arctic, and coastal communities, especially those in the Global South. The very survival of these vulnerable populations depends on the health of the seas.
Despite their vast size, the oceans are under threat, and human activity is the main source of the threat. Climate change and other environmental disruptions of human origin have caused sea surface temperatures to rise, glaciers to melt, and harmful algal species and pathogenic bacteria to migrate into waters that were previously uncontaminated. Rising seas and increasingly violent coastal storms endanger the 600 million people worldwide who live within 10 m of sea level. Rising concentrations of atmospheric CO2 have caused acidification of the oceans, which in turn destroys coral reefs, impairs development of oysters and other shellfish, and dissolves calcium-containing microorganisms at the base of the food web. The oceans are losing oxygen. Fish stocks are declining. Dredging, mechanized trawling, oil exploration, and planned deep undersea metal mining threaten the seabeds.
Pollution – unwanted, often hazardous waste material released into the environment by human activity – is one of the existential challenges of the present age. Like climate change, biodiversity loss, and depletion of the world’s fresh water supply, pollution endangers the stability of the earth’s support systems and threatens the continuing survival of human societies.
Note that last phrase: “pollution endangers the stability of the earth’s support systems and threatens the continuing survival of human societies.”
Meanwhile, the man in White House has spent the last four years undoing the admittedly feeble efforts the United States has made in trying to curb the harmful effects or our insatiable hunger for more.
More on the report from Boston College:
Oceans in peril, humans at risk; Widespread ocean pollution threatens the health of more than 3 billion people
Ocean pollution is widespread and getting worse, and when toxins in the oceans make landfall they imperil the health and well-being of more than 3 billion people, according to a new report by an international coalition of scientists led by Boston College’s Global Observatory on Pollution on Health and the Centre Scientifique de Monaco, supported by the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation.
Atop the proposals to remediate ocean pollution, the researchers recommend: banning coal combustion and the production of single-use plastics, controlling coastal pollution, and expanding marine protected areas.
The study is the first comprehensive examination of the impacts of ocean pollution on human health. It was published in the online edition of the Annals of Global Health and released at the Monaco International Symposium on Human Health & the Ocean in a Changing World, convened in Monaco and online by the Prince Albert II de Monaco Foundation, the Centre Scientifique de Monaco and Boston College.
“Simply put: Ocean pollution is a major global problem, it is growing, and it directly affects human health,” said Professor Philip Landrigan, M.D., the director of the observatory and of BC’s Global Public Health and the Common Good Program. “People have heard about plastic pollution in the oceans, but that is only part of it. Research shows the oceans are being fouled by a complex stew of toxins including mercury, pesticides, industrial chemicals, petroleum wastes, agricultural runoff, and manufactured chemicals embedded in plastic. These toxic materials in the ocean get into people, mainly by eating contaminated seafood.”
Landrigan noted that, “We are all at risk, but the people most seriously affected are people in coastal fishing communities, people on small island nations, indigenous populations and people in the high Arctic. The very survival of these vulnerable populations depends on the health of the seas.”
The oceans cover more than 70 percent of the earth’s surface. Despite their vast size, the seas are under threat, primarily as a result of human activity, according to the findings, drawn from 584 scientific reports, which detail:
- Pollution of the oceans by plastics, toxic metals, manufactured chemicals, pesticides, sewage, and agricultural runoff is killing and contaminating the fish that feed 3 billion people.
- Coastal pollution spreads life-threatening infections.
- Oil spills and chemical wastes threaten the microorganisms in the seas that provide much of the world’s oxygen supply.
Prince Albert of Monaco said that the analysis can be used to mobilize global resolve to curb ocean pollution.
“The link between ocean pollution and human health has, for a long time, given rise to very few studies,” Prince Albert wrote in an introduction to the report. “Taking into account the effects of ocean pollution – due to plastic, water and industrial waste, chemicals, hydrocarbons, to name a few – on human health should mean that this threat must be permanently included in the international scientific activity.
“This document on Human Health and the Ocean, prepared with the contributions of the Monaco Science Centre and Boston College, substantiates that pollution of the Ocean is not inevitable,” he added.
Among the key findings:
- Mercury pollution has become widespread in the oceans, accumulating to high levels in predator fish and once in the food chain poses documented risks to infants, children and adults.
- Coal is the major source of mercury pollution, its toxins vaporizing into the air as it burns and eventually washing into the oceans.
- Pollution along the coasts by industrial waste, agricultural runoff, pesticides, and human sewage has increased the frequency of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) producing toxins associated with dementia, amnesia, neurological damage, and rapid death.
- Plastic waste – entering the oceans at a rate of more than 10 million tons each year – kills seabirds and fish and is consumed by humans in the form of toxic microscopic particles, now found in all humans.
- The waters most seriously impacted by ocean pollution are the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic Sea, and Asian rivers.
There’s lots more after the jump. . .