Ocean pollution is a significant environmental concern with wide-reaching consequences. You may already know it affects our planet's health—but did you know that ocean health affects human health, too? How ocean pollution affects humans is a growing research topic that's already proven how interconnected we are with the world's oceans.
The ocean harbors vast marine life, provides humans with food and medicine, aids in climate regulation, and facilitates transportation, recreation, and scientific research. It also supports world economies, shoring up jobs in the fishing, boating, and tourism industries. We clearly rely on the ocean, so it's critical to do what we can to protect it.
Keep reading to learn how toxic waste, microplastics, and harmful microorganism overgrowth can impair human health and what you can do to change the tide on ocean pollution to support a healthier, brighter future for all.
Understanding How Ocean Pollution Affects Humans
The main threat to ocean health is human activities that produce industrial waste, trash, chemicals, and agricultural runoff that make their way to the sea through waterways, weather events, and other routes. According to research, pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease globally. And the problem is only getting worse. Without global, systemic solutions in place, toxic pollutants continue to enter our oceans. The good news is that, since humans cause this issue, they can also mitigate it.
The National Ocean Service states that its scientists and partners are addressing public health threats by developing new tools and technologies and disseminating information to the public and to governmental agencies and decision-makers. As predictions for algal blooms and other markers of contaminated beaches, seafood, and water become more accurate, organizations like these can better mitigate widespread pollution.
How Does Plastic in the Ocean Affect Human Health?
Every year, approximately 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean, including bottles, straws, bags, and food containers. Single-use plastics are commonly found along beaches, but an even more dangerous type of plastic lurks among the others. Microplastics—pieces of plastic that measure less than five millimeters in diameter—result from microbeads, clothing microfibers, fishing nets, and larger deteriorating plastics. Microplastics show up as speckled, multicolored "sand" on the beach and are consumed by marine life.
Research on the effects of plastics and microplastics on human health is ongoing. But we do know that chemicals used to produce plastic items can be harmful, especially phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA). These chemicals can disrupt the endocrine system and are particularly risky for pregnant women and babies.
Are Algal Blooms Harmful to Human Health?
When toxin-producing algae grows to excessive levels in the ocean, the result is often blue-green, red, or brown scum on the water's surface, depending on the type of algae. Other equally harmful blooms may not be visible. These toxic blooms occur when water temperatures rise and mix with storm runoff and sewage waste. Beyond depleting ocean oxygen levels and harming marine life, algal blooms can be detrimental to human health. Consuming affected fish and swimming in or ingesting toxic water can lead to serious illness, from intestinal issues to paralysis. When exposed at high levels, algal blooms can be fatal.
Scientists like those at the National Institute of Environmental Sciences are currently developing techniques for algal bloom detection and prediction to get ahead of potentially catastrophic blooms. Universities and governmental organizations have also designed educational programs to expand awareness. For example, Savannah State University is teaching middle school students how toxic blooms affect ocean and human health and how to track them.
In Alaska, shellfish is a staple food source, so ensuring safe consumption is paramount. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab is researching safe harvesting times for shellfish and has developed a public alert system for unsafe ocean toxin levels.
How Else Does Ocean Pollution Affect Humans?
Exposure to certain synthetic compounds found in the ocean can also adversely affect human health, primarily through seafood consumption. Heavy metals and chemical pollutants such as methylmercury and PCBs can affect brain health, especially in utero, and lead to learning disorders. Industrial chemicals that end up in the ocean include synthetic compounds from textile, furniture, cleaning product, cosmetic, and automobile manufacturing. Agricultural wastewater is also chock-full of chemical compounds that damage ocean ecosystems and human health.
Climate change is also a consideration when studying the connection between ocean health and human health. Fossil fuel combustion has led to glacial melting, which may release new microbes into the seas. The ocean also absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which leads to ocean acidification and ultimately increases the toxicity of chemical pollutants.
Changing the Tide: Protecting Ocean Health
The good news is that governments, organizations, and individuals are taking action to halt or mitigate the amount of chemicals released into the ocean and to spread awareness of climate change's detrimental effects. Climate change activists like Tom's of Maine Incubator Bodhi Patil work to protect our oceans by co-creating climate action movements and engaging youth-led solutions that create positive impact.
Laws, policies, and enforcement are key to cleaning up and preventing further ocean pollution. A few initiatives that can help include banning single-use plastic, expanding marine-protected areas, and putting a stop to mercury pollution that enters the ocean through coal burning.
Even small actions can have a big impact. Share your knowledge about ocean health with friends, family, and your greater community. Avoid single-use plastics and cosmetics with microbeads. Volunteer for local beach and waterway cleanups, and get involved with environmental volunteer organizations. You can even write to your government officials to make sure they're doing everything they can to create and enforce legislation that protects the oceans.
Feeling inspired? Discover more people who are organizing and innovating to overcome climate challenges and support a healthier planet.
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Why It's Good
Understanding the connection between ocean health and human health is key to combatting pollution and supporting climate change action.