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In The News: Plastic Debris and The Human Element in Marine Debris

This week’s blog blurb highlights key environmental awareness news articles from the previous week of February 19th-February 23rd. While two articles cover domestic PCB and DDT contamination in two US states – Delaware and West Virginia – two more shift towards global debris in the world’s oceans.

We have talked before of Minden, WV: “the most toxic town in the United States.” Construction of a new sewer system for the town was halted last month by Governor Jim Justice due to fears that the construction would stir up PCBs in groundwater and soil, displacing them throughout the town. However, contractors on site in Oak Hill, WV claim that so far no soil transported from the construction site has been found to contain PCBs and that construction must continue. The State’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) confirmed the statement.

While it is likely construction will resume again soon, the news now has citizens of Oak Hill and Minden worried that the project will displace PCBs closer to their homes: a notion which is not unwarranted* as many citizens of Minden in recent memory have felt the harmful effects of PCB contamination.

Closer to the Atlantic, state officials in Delaware have relaxed consumption advisories on several different fish species – including bluefish and striped bass – after finding that concentration levels of various contaminants are decreasing. Cleanup efforts in the state since the 1980s have focused on remediating mercury as well as harmful toxins such as PCBs, DDT, and other pesticides. Officials are confident that cleanup efforts have led to the decrease in contamination across fish species and citizens are being told that the decrease of nearly 60% on average allows these fish to once again be consumed by Delaware citizens.

Shifting focus with a broader lens, our team has posted previously about the harmful effects plastic waste and microplastics have on the ocean’s wildlife. The sentiment is not a new one but one becoming steadily more prominent as populations and industries continue to grow globally.

It would seem that plastic waste in the ocean – much like PCBs – tend to bioaccumulate as they find their way up the rungs of the oceans’ food chains. An article published last week by The Times in the UK mentioned how of 233 fish examined by scientists at depths of up to 600 meters in the Northwest Atlantic, “73% has consumed plastic ‘making it one of the highest reported frequencies of microplastic occurrence in fish worldwide.”

Many of the fish reported to have consumed plastic and microplastic waste are species known to be preyed upon by larger marine animals such as seals, sea lions, dolphins, and various species of sea birds.

Lulu the Orca contained the highest concentration of PCBs ever found in a single marine animal. (source: The Independent – UK)

Another article from the Jakarta Post highlights how collaborative efforts are a necessary part of cleaning the world’s oceans of debris. Engagement in marine debris removal, be it through mandated remedial action or volunteer efforts, has in recent years become a more prominent environmental issue, as the article states that marine debris has exploded from roughly 1.5 million tons in the 1950s to an estimated 322 million tons of marine debris worldwide in 2015, of which “nearly half [is produced] from Asia.”

The article also describes how the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) claims nearly 131 species of sea birds, 46 marine mammal species, 6 marine reptile species and 62 fish species face prime risk of marine debris consumption – predominantly plastics and microplastics which, similar to PCBs, tend to bioaccumulate as they are ingested further and further up the food chain of our ecosystems.

Along with threatening marine life, the UNEP estimates that maritime pollution and contamination contributes to an annual global loss of $13 billion (USD) revenue from “the reparation of vessels, cleanup costs and the decrease in tourism earnings.”

Over two-thirds of our planet’s surface is covered by water. Of this, nearly all of the water on the planet’s surface (96.5%) is from our oceans. Ocean water was the breeding grounds of Earth’s original lifeforms and to date is the very lifeblood of our planet despite having only explored and mapped a fraction of the oceans’ waters.

Much of the contamination seen in our oceans can be seen floating along the surface including an island of garbage in the Pacific Ocean so large scientists have mapped out its own vortex. With only 5% of the world’s oceans mapped out, we as humans have still managed to discard so much waste into its waters that we have caused unnatural formations to take place which in turn spread more contamination throughout the world via ocean winds and currents.

The article from the Jakarta Post echoes a sentiment often stated by ecoSPEARS: regardless of how much money is spent or how many stakeholders become involved, educational and awareness efforts coupled with active participation from all of us are the only way we will be able to revitalize the health of the world’s water.

If you want to get involved in cleanup efforts focused on our world’s oceans, please look into groups similar to those listed in the following links:

The Ocean Cleanup


Ocean Conservancy

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