News, On Campus, Academics, Featured Story

BC Global Observatory Releases Study on Ocean Pollution and Human Health

Boston College’s Global Observatory on Pollution and Health released a report on Thursday investigating the effects of ocean pollution on human health. The report, entitled “Human Health and Ocean Pollution,” found that wastes that end up in the ocean—including petroleum pollutants, mercury, and microplastics, among others—can cause lasting damage to human health.

Philip Landrigan, BC ’63, director of both BC’s global public health and the common good program and of the observatory, said that one of the overarching findings of the report is the intensification of ocean pollution.

“The first big finding is that pollution of the oceans is a massive problem, and it’s getting worse,” Landrigan said. 

Landrigan said he was driven to work on this study because of his involvement in The Lancet Commission on pollution and health, a 2017 report that found pollution to be the cause of nine million deaths per year.

“One of the recommendations that came out of that effort … was that there should be a global pollution observatory that would track pollution and its impacts on human health around the world,” Landrigan said. 

In 2018, Landrigan met Prince Albert II of Monaco. Recognizing a need for a deeper analysis of ocean pollution, the two established a joint study between the observatory at BC and the Scientific Center of Monaco to investigate the impact of ocean pollution on human health.

“I graduated from BC a long time ago, in another millennium, but I came back to BC in July of 2018, and we set up the observatory right from day one,” Landrigan said. 

The newly-released joint study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Global Health, was conducted over approximately two years and involved around 40 scientists from 15 different countries, according to Landrigan.

Infographic Courtesy of Boston College

One key finding, Landrigan said, is that ocean pollution causes extreme damage to ecosystems around the world. Pollution is killing coral reefs and fish, destroying harbors and estuaries, and has damaging effects to human health, which is what the report primarily focuses on.

The report also found that one of the major impacts ocean pollution has on human health is mercury-related brain damage, Landrigan said.

“Coal contains mercury … When you use thousands of tons of coal in factories and plants, all of that mercury vaporizes and goes up, carries through the atmosphere, and goes down into the ocean,” Landrigan said. “Once it gets into the ocean, it accumulates in fish at very high levels.”

When pregnant women eat mercury-contaminated fish, the mercury can cause brain damage to their fetuses, Landrigan said. In the United States, thousands of babies are born each year with various degrees of brain injury caused by mothers’ consumption of these fish, the study found.

The report also found that petroleum pollutants that enter the ocean after an oil spill or leak can kill the microorganisms that produce oxygen for the earth’s atmosphere.

“I don’t think we’re going to run out of oxygen this year, but if we continue to recklessly allow petrochemical waste, you can envision a scenario some years ahead where the oxygen concentration of the atmosphere will begin to go down,” Landrigan said.

According to Landrigan, the report also found that coastal pollution can also create harmful toxins which have the potential to poison humans, Landrigan said.

“Along the coastlines you have agricultural waste, chemical waste, human sewage washing into coastal waters,” he said. “All of that stuff, all of that soup, triggers the growth of algae and bacteria. … Besides being nasty and unsightly, they also create these incredibly potent toxins.”

These toxins are picked up by fish and shellfish, Landrigan said, and every year there is an increasing number of reports of people contracting ciguatera fish poisoning—an illness that can cause vomiting, dizziness, and weakness—because of shellfish consumption. 

The report provided a number of urgent recommendations to slow the pollution of the ocean, including the elimination of coal combustion, banning the production of single-use plastic, controlling agricultural releases and sewage to control coastal pollution, and the creation of marine-protected areas, which are the ocean equivalent of national parks, Landrigan said.

The main takeaway of the study, Landrigan said, is the avoidability of pollution and its harmful effects. 

“The concluding, overriding message is that ocean pollution can be prevented,” Landrigan said. “It’s not inevitable. Humans, we know how to control air pollution, we know how to control drinking water pollution, we’ve done it. And we can use the same tools to control ocean pollution. It’s not so much a matter of technology, it’s a matter of political will and political leadership.”

Featured Image by Leo Wang / Heights Staff

December 3, 2020