On March 28, 1970, speaking over video of his diving team in a vast Sargasso seaweed field Jacques Cousteau stated,
“There is a fresh sense of urgency in our work, observing and reporting on the ocean alchemy of the sea; for we could well be the first witnesses to the death of life.”
Fifty years later, a new comprehensive report, funded by the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, on the impact of ocean pollution on human health has been published. This month, the Annals of Global Health contains a detailed description of the pollutants ranging from mercury to toxic algae, to infectious bacteria and viruses to chemicals associated with pesticides and plastics. The report makes it clear that Cousteau and his team knew what they were seeing.
Each year 2,200 tons of mercury are added to the ocean by coal burning and gold mining. Mercury is neurotoxic; meaning it negatively impacts the brains of fetuses, infants, children and adults. Since 1945 over 140,000 new chemicals —derived primarily from oil, coal and natural gas — have been conceived, formulated and manufactured. They can be found in plastics, clothing, cleaning supplies, pesticides, fire-fighting foam, and more with two-thirds of these chemical manufactured in countries with little or no environmental protections. These chemicals are in our ocean.
Though the ocean is packed with bacteria and viruses (an estimated 4–6 × 1030 microbial cells), and many of these microbes do not pose a threat to human life, our experience with the COVID-19 pandemic over the course of this year should give us pause to wonder. Microorganisms like bacteria and viruses that are harmful to humans pour into the ocean via sewage discharges, waste water discharge from ships and storm water run-off. Vibrio is a genus of bacteria that includes the cholera infection and other dangerous species. According to the report, US infections “by Vibrio species has increased by 115% in the past decade, especially along the Gulf, Northeast, and Pacific Northwest coasts.” Once in the ocean, gene transfer of harmful land bacteria into harmless ocean bacteria can actually create new strains of harmful bacteria.
Global ocean warming accelerates the growth and spread of these microorganisms. It also increases the amount of harmful algal blooms. These “red tides” produce toxins that are deadly to humans and animals.
“Every living thing, eagles, roses, whales, butterflies, trees, fishes, corn, turtles, amoebas and even man himself, all are mainly composed of organized water. No matter what the form of water, clouds, snow dew, rivers, lakes or glaciers, there is only one source of life-sustaining water-the sea.” ~Jacques Cousteau
Is there hope?
One of the most important features of this report is that it gives hope. It references a finding from the 2018 Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health that states using the “polluter pays principle,” using targets and timetables and adequate funding, it works and it is good for the economy. It increases prosperity and provides jobs.
The report does not just document the tragic situation of our ocean. It also explains what needs to be done to change course and correct it before it is too late. These strategies are so important that we are reproducing an abbreviated version of them here:
Prevent Mercury Pollution of the Oceans.Two actions will be key to preventing further addition of mercury to the oceans. These are:
- Cessation of coal combustion; and
- Control of inorganic mercury, especially in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM).
End Plastic Pollution of the Oceans and Consider a Global Ban on Production of Single-Use Plastic.
Promote Effective Waste Management. Improvement in collection and management of solid waste is a key strategy for prevention and control of marine plastic pollution. UNESCO reports that seven of the EU Member States plus Norway and Switzerland now recover more than 80% of their used plastics.
Reduce Releases of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Animal Waste, Industrial Discharges and Human Sewage into Coastal Waters.
Create Marine Protected Areas. Designation of new Marine Protected Areas around the world will safeguard critical ecosystems, protect vulnerable fish stocks, and enhance human health and well-being [586–588]. Creation of Marine Protected Areas is an important manifestation of national and international commitment to protecting the health of the seas.
Support Robust Monitoring of Ocean Pollution. Specific needs are the following:
- Assist countries with the establishment and certification of monitoring programs for chemical pollutants, algal toxins, microplastics, and microbial pathogens in seafood products.
- Build and sustain strong transdisciplinary teams of scientists and strengthen analytical capabilities at the national level to provide countries with capability to respond to new and unexpected marine pollutants.
- Develop new monitoring capabilities using networks of in situ sensors that can detect toxic chemical pollutants, HAB cells and their toxins, microplastics and pathogenic bacteria.
- Support the global efforts of the IOC-UNESCO Intergovernmental Panel on Harmful Algal Blooms (IPHAB) .
- Enhance communication, literacy and outreach efforts so that the risks of human illness and death from ocean pollutants is recognized and understood throughout all levels of society.
Extend Regional and International Marine Pollution Control Programs to all Countries.
Ultimately, prevention and control of ocean pollution can be achieved by transition to a circular, more efficient, less wasteful economy and embracing the precepts of green chemistry
What does a circular economy and green chemistry mean? A circular economy involves recycling and reuse and reducing the use of non-renewable resources like coal, natural gas and oil. Green chemistry refers to reducing the use and creation of hazardous compounds. The goal is to create safe, non-toxic materials.
Seventy percent of the earth is ocean
Only 30 percent of the earth is land. The rest is water. “If you protect the ocean you protect yourself. We are connected to the ocean.” Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques Cousteau states. His nonprofit, the Ocean Futures Society, is one of the organizations working to educate and innovate change.
Sixty percent of the human body is water. That water has a similar formulation of salts as the oceans. Jacques Cousteau described the situation this way:
“It is tragic that among all the men scurrying about the tiny continental islands of our water planet, too few are able to sense the serum coursing through our veins, too few can feel, I am the sea and the sea is me.”
Landrigan, PJ. Stegeman, JJ, Fleming, LE, et. al. (2020).Human Health and Ocean Pollution. Annals of Global Health. https://annalsofglobalhealth.org/articles/10.5334/aogh.2831/
Cousteau, J. (1970). The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau: The Water Planet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrCCnDmcaKk
Ocean Futures Society. (2019). We are all connected to the ocean. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZtAWZB6CS8
Feature Image: Kathleen Hoffman, PhD