Article image

Ocean pollution threatens the health of more than three billion people

In the first comprehensive report of its kind, experts describe how the impacts of ocean pollution are directly harmful to human health, and plastic is only part of the problem. The researchers found that toxic ocean pollution endangers the health and well-being of more than three billion people.

Dr. Philip Landrigan is the director of Boston College’s Global Observatory on Pollution on Health. “Simply put, ocean pollution is a major global problem, it is growing, and it directly affects human health,” said Dr. Landrigan.

“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.”

“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 researchers analyzed data from more than 584 scientific studies. Beyond food contamination, oil spills and chemical waste threaten the marine microorganisms that provide much of the world’s oxygen supply. According to Prince Albert of Monaco, 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. 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,” wrote Prince Albert.

“This document on Human Health and the Ocean, prepared with the contributions of the Monaco Science Centre and Boston College, substantiates that the pollution of the ocean is not inevitable.”

The researchers found that mercury pollution has become widespread in the oceans, and accumulates to high levels in predator fish. Once mercury enters the food chain, it poses documented risks to humans. The study showed that burning coal is the biggest source of mercury pollution.

The analysis confirmed that human sources of pollution such as industrial waste, agricultural runoff, pesticides, and sewage have increased the frequency of harmful algal blooms (HABs). These blooms produce toxins associated with dementia, amnesia, neurological damage, and rapid death.

Plastic waste is now entering the oceans at a rate of more than 10 million tons each year, according to the researchers. This waste is consumed by people in the form of toxic microscopic particles, which are now found in all humans.

The study also revealed that the Mediterranean Sea, Baltic Sea, and Asian rivers are the water bodies that are most severely impacted by ocean pollution.

“The key thing to realize about ocean pollution is that, like all forms of pollution, it can be prevented using laws, policies, technology, and enforcement actions that target the most important pollution sources,” said Dr. Landrigan. 

“Many countries have used these tools and have successfully cleaned fouled harbors, rejuvenated estuaries, and restored coral reefs. The results have been increased tourism, restored fisheries, improved human health, and economic growth. These benefits will last for centuries.”

“Our Global Observatory on Pollution and Health at Boston College is extremely proud to have been able to partner with the Centre Scientifique de Monaco and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation to produce this report and develop the Declaration of Monaco.”

“This work advances the mission of the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society at Boston College to use scientific research to benefit society, and it fulfills Pope Francis’ call in Laudato Si’ to care for our Common Home and to protect the poor and the vulnerable among us.”

The study is published in the journal Annals of Global Health.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day