Extremely concentrated levels of Persistent Organic Pollutants, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), have been found in amphipods living in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana and Kermadec trenches — each over 10 kilometers deep and 7,000 kilometers away from each other — according to new research published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
The crustaceans sampled by the researchers behind the new study contained roughly 10 times the levels of industrial pollution as “the average earthworm.” So, despite the seemingly remote nature of the locations, modern industrial activity is clearly still having a pronounced effect there.
We don’t usually cover news like this too much at CleanTechnica, but I think that it should be highlighted here as a reminder of the price that’s been paid and is continuing to be paid for modern consumer lifestyles.
While anthropogenic climate change, the current extremely high rates of species extinctions, and the effects of air pollution on human health are all fairly obvious* ways that people are wrecking the livability of the environment, the topic of chemical pollution isn’t one that’s broached too often in the media in a meaningful way. (Neither are the topics of the current extremely high rates of soil erosion and the now near complete reliance on mined fertilizers in industrial-scale agriculture, for that matter.)
Chemical pollution is ubiquitous nowadays, as is exposure in everyday life to chemicals that have never been studied in any great depth as regards long-term effects on human health — or as regards the health of other animals and of whole food chains, for that matter.
Even in the deepest trenches of the world’s oceans, these chemicals are now accumulating, as the new research led by Newcastle University’s Dr Alan Jamieson shows. Perhaps more importantly, though, many of these chemicals are persisting — the PCBs found in the amphipods, for instance, were banned back in the 1970s, but owing to their structure won’t be breaking down anytime soon.
Considering that PCBs were produced in great quantity from the 1930s until the 1970s (an estimated 1.3 million tonnes were produced) for use as flame retardants and electrical insulators, this shouldn’t be too surprising, but it serves as a good example of what’s happening right now. After all, modern industrial pollution is by no means limited to PCBs.
The lead author of the new research, Dr Jamieson, commented:
“We still think of the deep ocean as being this remote and pristine realm, safe from human impact, but our research shows that, sadly, this could not be further from the truth.
“In fact, the amphipods we sampled contained levels of contamination similar to that found in Suruga Bay, one of the most polluted industrial zones of the northwest Pacific.
“What we don’t yet know is what this means for the wider ecosystem and understanding that will be the next major challenge.”
Something that should be brought up here, while we’re on the subject, is the question of what happens when the effects of anthropogenic climate change begin hitting in earnest, and/or when the next round of large wars or mass migration hits (the current “refugee crisis” is a drop in the bucket compared to what’s coming, and also to what has happened at various times in the past — e.g., the Volkerwanderung of the late Roman Period that saw Germanic groups immigrate into Europe and largely displace or kill off the inhabitants of Northern Europe of the time).
What will happen to all of the chemical production facilities, waste storage facilities, etc?
Will people dealing with extreme food and water security problems, and also with civil wars and insurgencies, take personal responsibility for what happens to these facilities, chemicals, and wastes? Of course not. And so what happens to them? Are massive unmanaged chemical pollution releases simply the reality that awaits with rising seas and the social problems that will accompany diminishing agricultural productivity? Is it simply a reality that those living in the future will have to deal with much higher rates of cancers, birth defects, and other health problems?
With those questions in mind, here’s more from the press release for the paper:
“The research team used deep-sea landers — designed by Dr Jamieson — to plumb the depths of the Pacific Ocean in order to bring up samples of the organisms that live in the deepest levels of the trenches.
“The authors suggest that the pollutants most likely found their way to the trenches through contaminated plastic debris and dead animals sinking to the bottom of the ocean, where they are then consumed by amphipods and other fauna, which in turn become food for larger fauna still.
“The fact that we found such extraordinary levels of these pollutants in one of the most remote and inaccessible habitats on earth really brings home the long term, devastating impact that mankind is having on the planet,” concluded Dr Jamieson. “It’s not a great legacy that we’re leaving behind.”
Those wanting to take a closer look at the research paper can do so here.
*Even if some people prefer to have their heads in the sand on the matters.