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Chemistry of the Great Big Blue

Remember when I promised to profile chemicals in the ocean as a New Year’s resolution?  If not, here‘s my first in the series of one posts that resulted, reposted here as a reminder. As always, I encourage checking out the old comments. From now on, I still hope to give the series a second shot at life, so keep checking back for more installments of the series.

As my fellow fry-entists can attest, we know so little about the oceans that every deep sea expedition yields a handful of new species to describe, focus on saving one species may come at the demise of another, and people still won’t go swimming in some areas for fear Jaws will eat them.  And that’s just a quick sampling of what we’ve written so far.  The depth of our societal ignorance about the ocean and how it functions is enormous.  Just as the fishermen of days gone by used to think that the sea offered God’s unlimited bounty, modern day people don’t seem to understand that the ocean isn’t an endlessly large dumping ground for all things undesired in our terrestrial lives.  From trash to carbon dioxide to birth control pills, our oceans are the unfortunate downstream victims of human decisions.  We don’t understand the impacts, sources, or even types of chemicals that are ending up flushed to the seas. One of my new year’s resolutions is to become more acquainted with the chemicals of the great big sea.  Today’s profiled chemical: the unknown.

Over 10,000 new chemicals are produced each year, mostly in industry where they will be deployed for commercial use.  At least in the US, these chemicals are only regulated after they are commercially released unless they are for clinical purposes.  That means that a product could be on the market for years before anyone even realizes that it’s getting into the environment, let alone that it’s toxic and should be contained.  And even this broken system has only cancelled the registration for a mere handful of chemicals, mostly pesticides and mostly after protest.  In fact, their pesticide website boasts “EPA does not maintain a list of canceled pesticides”.  Other chemicals are even more difficult to find information on.

Shoutouts for collecting information have go to Toxipedia that attempts to keep an encyclopedia and running news headlines pertaining to all things chemical in the environment.  A recent link from them provides the perfect example of ‘the unknown’ that is contaminating our water.  All that Tamiflu that people took for fear of swine flu earlier this fall has found its way to the rivers of Japan.  Likely other countries will have similar results once they stop to look.  Yes, this is indicative that our wastewater is far inadequate when it comes to treating pharmaceuticals in sewage, but this finding also stresses the need to take a closer look at what is escaping our communities.  Who knows what Tamiflu in the rivers will do to the fish communities, the estuaries where the chemicals eventually settle, or the even the next year’s stock of flu viruses that now live in a world with a chronic dose of antivirals.  Resistance, anyone?

Another shoutout goes to USGS, which started the National Reconnaissance of Pharmaceuticals, Hormones, and other Contaminants in US Streams.  For the marine world that I work in, this is a leading model from our upstream neighbors taking a look at what they send down to us here at the coast.  It’s nice to have the weight and wallets of the US government helping in the investigation for ‘emerging contaminants’ as these chemicals have come to be known.  Because running hundreds of thousands of water samples from all over the country through a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer is not cheap or easy.  But it’s necessary in the quest to understand what we as a species are exposing ourselves and our biosphere to.

Hopefully shining stars like these will continue to find funding for us toxicologists and help to get the word out about the results.  We all have a right to know what we’re exposed to that may affect our health.  Those of us who are the downstream end of the line depend on whistleblowers upstream to at least let us know what to look for.  Especially since tomorrow 27 new chemicals will join the open market.