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The Dirt on Dioxins

June 14, 2012
Emissions from waste incineration cause a wide range of health issues, for humans and for the environment.

Greenpeace activists were able to shut down Britain’s largest waste incinerator back in 2001, which had been exceeding pollution regulations

Think of car exhaust. Many of us drive to the store, to work or to school every day without considering what is exiting out the tailpipe. Are we aware of the chemicals released into the air? Do we know how they affect our environment or our health? No, we don’t worry about it. Global climate change is the problem we’ve heard about over and over again, but it’s not the only issue. There are other concerns with car exhaust that aren’t frequently mentioned. Let’s talk about some little-known pollutants called dioxins that you’re probably breathing in every day or eating in your grilled cheese sandwich.

Dioxins (full name: polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins) are one of several known persistent organic pollutants (POPs)—toxic chemicals that resist degradation in the environment by natural processes. Massive birth defects, endocrine system disruption, weakened immune system and cancers are only a few of the known effects of dioxin exposure.

Dioxins have no known uses, and are not produced commercially anywhere in the world. Even still, they are accidentally produced in many ways through industrial practices and burning. They also occur naturally from wood burning and volcanic eruptions.

Toxin accumulation in the food chain.

Toxin accumulation in the food chain. Polar bears in this system are the most affected.

Problematic anthropogenic sources of dioxins:

  • Car emissions and burning fossil fuels
  • Chlorine bleaching of paper products
  • Pesticide manufacture
  • Garbage and medical waste incineration

Water that is polluted with dioxins is a starting point for catastrophe. There is a dramatic increase in the amount of dioxins in animal bodies as you climb up the food chain. The transfer of harmful chemicals like dioxins from smaller animals to larger ones occurs through predation.The smaller organisms (little fish and plankton) remain largely unaffected while the toxins accumulate in bodytissues of top predator species—sharks, tuna, whales and birds of prey—where they build up over time.

As a result, top predator populations are suffering (don’t forget—humans included). Contrary to popular belief, predators like sharks are necessary for healthy habitats, but dioxins are causing dangerous declines in these critical populations. The International Programme of Chemical Safety reports:

“Exposure to persistent organic pollutants has been correlated with population declines in a number of marine mammals including the common seal (Reijnders, 1986) the harbour porpoise, bottle- nosed dolphins (Duinker, 1985) and beluga whales from the St. Lawrence River (Martineau et al., 1987).”

Dioxin exposure and associated problems should be of critical concern to us. For decades we’ve known that dioxins and POPs in the environment are bad, but why haven’t we taken bigger steps to find a solution? Let’s not wait until it is too late to do something!

  • Consume fewer products, compost and recycle so that waste incineration is not necessary.
  • Be conscious about chlorine bleached paper products.
  • Be aware of the pesticides that may be on your food.
  • Use fewer plastic products. The manufacture of such things can release dioxins, and also burning plastics releases a handful of terrible pollutants into the atmosphere—dioxins included. (See my triumph over plastic packaging)
  • Minimize your fossil fuel usage. Walk, bike and unplug your electronics!

We all can make a difference to improve human an environmental health.


Sea Semester, Part 2: Researching Plastics at Sea

June 8, 2012

The Sargasso Sea—the world’s only sea that is completely surrounded by water!

After 6 weeks of preparation on shore at the Sea Education Association campus, we land lubbers presented our research proposals in front of SEA faculty and our fellow students. Myself and my two other teammates tackled the subject of plastic debris concentrations throughout our cruise track in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Our studies of previous research had led us to hypothesize that the highest densities of both macro and micro plastic debris would be found out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—in the Sargasso Sea—and close to the Caribbean islands.

From the very moment out of port we conducted research 24 hours a day. At all times there were two students and one scientist in the lab, which made this experience more genuine for me because I was constantly surrounded by my own project work. We collected data using Neuston tows. To perform the Neustons, to put it simply, we tied a net to a line, tied the line to the ship and threw the net overboard. 30 minutes later we’d bring it back up to check out what was inside! That’s how science is done.

Neuston tow in progress! Photo courtesy of one of my shipmates.

The plastics in the Neustons were all visible to the naked eye (we called these macroplastics), but we also tested water samples for microplastics that had to be looked at under a microscope. Our data concluded that there wasn’t that much of a relationship between the micro and macro plastics, but in the Sargasso Sea, they were both found in very high numbers.

Plastics accumulate where currents and wind push them, which is why we expected to see so many of them in the Sargasso. This body of water is surrounded by powerful currents like the Gulf Stream that trap any sort of debris, even living things, inside. Because it takes many years for plastics to break down, they end up here floating around in circles. Some of the larger items we found in our nets included a tupperware lid and a frisbee. We even spotted a gigantic red harbor buoy that drifted all the way out to sea! Something like that could be seriously dangerous for passing boat traffic if it was in the pitch black night and nobody could see it.

This whole experience brought a few things to my attention:

  1. There is literally plastic everywhere in the ocean. I used to say this as an exaggeration, but from my own research I’ve seen this to be true. About 75% of all of our Neuston tows contained macroplastics, and every single water sample contained microplastics!
  2. It is really hard to live without plastic, but there are several ways we can greatly reduce how much we use! Then maybe not as much will end up in the oceans. Because we did not have much space on board the Corwith Cramer, we reused most of our materials: saran wrap, tin foil, yogurt containers and plastic ziplock bags.
  3. The quality of the scientific information you acquire from 6 weeks aboard a 134-foot brigatine may depend on the strength of your sea legs and your ability to not get seasick. Also, it is very hard to count microplastics or small creatures through a microscope when the slide is moving around!

If anyone would like to know more about Sea Semester they should give me a shout. It was by far the most exciting experience in my life and I’m very fortunate to have had this opportunity.

Sea Semester, Part 1: A Student’s Life on Land

January 20, 2012

For those who may not be familiar with the program, Sea Semester is a study abroad program for college and high school students that allows them to partner their studies of the ocean with personal experiences sailing out at sea. During an intensive 12-week period, students spend 6 weeks on shore at the SEA (Sea Education Association) campus in Woods Hole, MA, and another 6 weeks aboard one of their two vessels, the Corwith Cramer or the Robert C. Seamans. You can learn more about their various programs at

From the very moment I learned about SEA I knew that it was something I wanted to be a part of. Since I already feel so passionate about living in harmony with our oceans I really wanted to take this opportunity to make more personal connections that I could build off of for furthering my possibly ocean-related future career, or to just learn more about something I really love! Learning to sail and navigate, as well as the college credits I’m receiving are major bonuses!

Today marked the end of my third week here on campus. The amount of information that has already been crammed into my brain is unbelievable. In our first week here the professors and captain made it clear that this was not going to be easy. The three classes I’m taking here are Oceanography, Nautical Science and Maritime Studies. In oceanography we are going to cover the basics of physical, chemical, geological and biological oceanography. My professor, Dr. Rhian Waller, has never taught at SEA before but she usually teaches at University of Maine and does lots of research at Darling Marine Laboratories. We had a guest lecture from Susan Humphris, a researcher from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, who came to talk to us about her research with ocean trenches, hydrothermal vents and the Mid Atlantic Ridge.

For our final Oceanography we have to develop our own research projects, and my group has chosen to collect plastic debris data while we are aboard the Cramer. Specifically we intend to collect surface samples with a Neuston net, as well as samples from the water column by towing a Tucker trawl upwards. More details later as my partners and I further develop our research proposal!

In Nautical Science we’ve been practicing our navigation skills with pilot charts—plotting courses, taking bearings and such. Now we’ve moved on to celestial navigation, or navigation by the sun, stars, planets and moon. I don’t know where else I would have received the opportunity to learn this material, and I’m entirely grateful for this chance because celestial nav is entirely too cool! Sure, it might be a lot of work and the homework we must do is painfully monotonus but who knows when this information could come in handy! The captain of our voyage teaches that class—Captain Jason Quilter, or Captain, or Jason, or to us students he’s known as Cappy J.

Maritime Studies is a more humanities focused class. We are specifically focusing on the maritime history of the Caribbean and the Americas, which is where our cruise track is taking us when we ship off in February. We’ve read the log of Columbus’ first voyage, and a piece of writing from John Smith, historical documents from the West Indies, and today we were lectured on the history of the Chiquita bananas and some of the issues connected with plantations in the Caribbean and in Central America. Our professor is Dr. Mary Malloy, who sings us sea chanties in class and knows an overwhelming amount of information about maritime history between New England and the Northwestern Native Americans.

My crazy workload and lack of a car have kept me back from exploring much of the surrounding Woods Hole community. Racing Beach, which is a lovely 10 minute walk from here, is one of the only places I’ve been able to venture off to in my free time on weekend mornings. I’ve begun debris collecting along there everytime I go down, and Saturday I found a practically new iPod touch. On Jan 7th we had a class field trip to New Bedford where we walked around town and saw the whaling museum there where there was a reading of Moby Dick taking place in honor of the anniversary of the day that Herman Melville set sail from New Bedford. There’s lots of rich maritime history in New Bedford, so it was cool to apply some of the information from class to our excursions there. This past Tuesday a few of my fellow classmates and I got to see Alvin, the deep-sea submersible. The aluminum sphere, which is the main body of Alvin was all we saw because it is currently being refitted with new technology so it may travel as deep as 6000 ft. to study the ocean floor.

So, in 27 days we will depart from Key West, FL and sail up the Gulf Stream on the Eastern coast of Florida, through the Bahamas, out into the Sargasso Sea, then south to the Dominican Republic, around to Jamaica, and finally around Cuba and back to Key West, Florida… And that is where the real adventure will begin!

Out and about in Woods Hole! This is one of my classmates sitting near the WHOI docks.

A Conversation between Sylvia Earle & Jean-Michel Cousteau – 2010

January 16, 2012


This video has left me so inspired! It really is up to the divers and mariners in the world to spread awareness, spread knowledge and spread marine conservation so that everyone knows about the issues and will contribute to the solutions.

Shark Fin Ban Petition for Hong Kong

November 21, 2011

While bold progress has been made along the Western United States coast  and the state of Hawai’i to ban the sale  and consumption of shark fins, major movements to save sharks from extinction are also occurring worldwide. When Governor Jerry Brown of California signed AB 376 into legislation last month, he said:

“The practice of cutting the fins off of living sharks and dumping them back in the ocean is not only cruel, but it harms the health of our oceans. Researchers estimate that some shark populations have declined by more than 90 percent, portending grave threats to our environment and commercial fishing. In the interest of future generations, I have signed this bill.”

Read more:

The state of California was once considered to be the greatest market for shark fins outside of Asia, but as of January 1st all import of shark fins will be prohibited and the sale of shark fins or shark fin soup after July 2013.

Other locations worldwide have also stepped up to support sharks: Toronto now with their own shark fin ban, Chile and the Bahamas with new laws banning shark fishing, Taiwan now has stricter fishing regulations, and now there is growing momentum in Hong Kong discouraging the sale or consumption of shark fins.

Tell the Hong Kong SAR Government: Don’t serve shark fin soup at official functions!

Dead and Gone – Overfishing

November 21, 2011

This parody of the song “Dead and Gone” by T.I. and Justin Timberlake was made by UC Berkeley students.

I thought this was awesome! First of all, because I love Justin Timberlake. Second of all, more people need to be educated about overfishing and “going viral” seems to be the trend these days. So spread this around!

Lionfish Invasion of Florida

November 7, 2011

One of the coolest-looking fish you’ll find in the ocean, Pterois volitans or more commonly known as the lionfish has been causing mucho problemas up the U.S. Atlantic coast all the way down to South America, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. First sightings of the lionfish appearing in the Caribbean were around 4-5 years ago, and their populations have since then boomed.

How were they introduced in the first place? The lionfish were introduced as a result of the aquarium trade in the United States just about a few decades ago. Nobody knows exactly how they were released, intentionally or unintentionally, but it happened sometime in the 1980s. From the very few that were originally released, now hundreds of thousands of lionfish now devastate the waters of the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic. Their populations explode at extreme rates due to their ability to inhabit any marine habitat, and the ability of female lionfish to produce about 2 million eggs in a single year.

What damage is being done? The lionfish are vicious carnivores, eating anything that is less than half their size. In places where new populations have been established, the number of prey species (littler fish) have declined up to 90%! They are also highly aggressive and have poisonous spines that may inflict serious harm to humans. If you happen to be swimming or diving and see one of these guys, steer clear! But their aggressiveness and venomous barbs aren’t only harmful to humans. Natural predators in these areas such as sharks, larger fish, etc. avoid these buggers at all costs, which is part of the reason their populations have grown to huge numbers.

Here’s a PDF from that explains more about lionfish biology and ecology.

What is being done? The problem has become so widespread that there is hardly anything that can be done. Local divers and fishermen are being encouraged to get involved in the catching and removal of these fish, a dangerous task. On the plus side, lionfish is considered a delicacy and several local restaurants have been increasing the presence of lionfish on their dinner menus in the Bahamas. This movement has also spiked a national “Eat Lionfish” campaign sponsored by NOAA, because hey… “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em!”

Check out NOAA’s “Filleting the Lion” campaign website here.

Washington Post Article: “Lionfish invade the Gulf… and the dinner table”

Here’s a list of delicious ways you can cook lionfish!

This is a perfectly good example (depending on how the lionfish is caught, though) of sustainable seafood. Now I wouldn’t mind trying some of that!

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