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By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
It’s a sad fact that almost every marine organism, from the tiniest plankton to whales and polar bears, is contaminated with man-made chemicals, some of which enter the sea through deliberate dumping. Indeed, for centuries, the oceans have been a convenient dumping ground for waste generated on land. This continued until the 1970s, with dumping at sea the accepted practise for disposal of nearly everything, including toxic material such as pesticides, chemical weapons, and radioactive waste.
But chemicals also enter the sea from land-based activities. Chemicals can escape into water, soil, and air during their manufacture, use, or disposal, as well as from accidental leaks or fires. Once in the environment, they can travel for long distances in air and water, including ocean currents.
People once assumed that the ocean was so large that all pollutants, be they medicines, oil, chemicals or plastics, would be diluted and dispersed to safe levels after being dumped in the sea. But in reality, some toxic man-made chemicals have even become more concentrated, as they have entered the food chain.
How so? Tiny animals at the bottom of the food chain, such as plankton in the oceans, absorb the chemicals as they feed. Because they don’t break down easily, these chemicals accumulate in these tiny animals, becoming much more concentrated in their bodies, and when they are eaten by other small animals, the concentration rises again. These animals are in turn eaten by larger animals, until those higher up the food chain, such as seals, can have contamination levels millions of times higher than the water in which they live. And polar bears, which feed on seals, can have contamination levels up to 3 billion times higher than their environment.
So what about humans, who eat fatty fish like salmon, or drink water contaminated by pollutants that can’t be filtered out? Evidence is mounting that a number of man-made chemicals can cause serious health problems – including cancer, damage to the immune system, behavioural problems, and reduced fertility.
It’s time to stop this madness. We’re all responsible for making the mess, so we can all make a difference in cleaning it up.
To further reduce water pollution and improve the health of all living creatures on the planet, here are 10 surprising ways you can help stop water pollution – and if you’re still after more ways to reduce your impact, click here.
1. Stop dumping chemicals
You may think only industry dumps chemicals – but it’s simply not so. Whether you’re rinsing off the varnish or paint that you just used to decorate your house, colouring your hair or tie-dyeing an old shirt, all those chemicals you used for your tasks are being washed into the ocean, in one way or another. But the very worst part of it is when you dump the remaining chemicals down the drain – it’s really important that you call your local council to take away unused paint, varnish and other household chemicals so they can be disposed of safely.
2. Use greener detergents
We use a lot of soaps. From laundry soaps to dish detergents, that’s a whole lot of chemicals being poured into our water tables! Luckily, there are ‘green’ brands for just about any type of household cleaner – and these should be what you’re buying. Not only are they better for waterways, but ultimately, they’re better for your health, too, as non-natural household cleaners emit VOCs, which can damage your (and your pet’s) health.
3. Cut down on plastic
We all know that there are huge ‘plastic islands’ the size of countries in the oceans, right? Sadly, we’ve all probably contributed to these in one way or another, due to the fact that all of us use so much plastic – it seems to be in everything, from fruit containers to toy packaging; makeup compacts to water bottles. We should all avoid using plastic bottles and bags whenever possible, but if you must buy plastic, at least ensure you place it in a recycling bin!
4. Stop flushing medicines
It’s a fact that our water is more contaminated than ever with birth control pills, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals. Whatever medications you flush down your toilet affects all living things on the planet, as sewage systems cannot remove medicines from water that is released into lakes, rivers or oceans. Fish and other aquatic creatures have shown adverse effects from medicines in the water; the same can be said about the drinking water ingested by people. What to do with old pills then? Simple! Toss them in the trash or even better: drop them off at your closest pharmacy and get them to safely dispose of them.
5. Be more careful with your car
Keeping a well-maintained car will keep your life safe, along with the planet’s resources. Leaking oil, rust and undue air pollution, all have a negative impact on our water supply. Anything that inadvertently spills out of your car will severely affect the planet, so take your car in for regular maintenance, change your own oil and dispose of it properly. Last but not least, if you are planning to change cars, consider buying an electric or hybrid, eco-friendlier one.
6. Be a greener gardener
It may seem bizarre to acknowledge there is a wrong way of gardening, but all the pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other chemicals you use to make your lawn or garden grow are very toxic – and eventually end up in our water supply. Let’s not forget that unfortunately, the largest selling pesticide is Monsanto’s toxic glyphosate, after all! Adapt your home’s landscape to your region by cultivating a flora that’s native to your area and accustomed to the local weather. Install water-butts to capture rainwater throughout the year, update your flower pots from plastic to clay and use eco-friendly fertilisers.
7. Reduce (or stop!) your meat consumption
Vegans and even vegetarians make FAR less impact on the oceans. How? Because the best way to stop supporting the rapid depletion of fished species as well animals that are accidentally caught in nets, such as dolphins, whales, sharks, sea lions and sea turtles, among many others – is to eliminate seafood from your diet.
Moreover, consumption of meat and other animal products is also having a devastating impact on the oceans. Commercial animal farming produces massive amounts of waste that pollute streams, rivers and the oceans, and run-off such as pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics and nutrients from operations producing crops to feed the massive number of farmed animals pollutes the water as well – and can even lead to ocean dead zones (sadly, these are exactly as they sound – areas of the ocean with no life). Methane emissions from factory farms contribute significantly to climate change and ocean acidification.
And here’s a surprising fact: more than a third of the global catch of wild fish is ground into fishmeal and fish oil to feed farm animals – including farmed fish! In addition, though many places around the world face water shortages and droughts, animal agriculture continues to claim a massive amount of freshwater. According to the UN, agriculture accounts for the most use of water – 70 percent of global water usage, much of which is used for crops to feed livestock. It is estimated that it takes 2,393 liters of water to make just one hamburger and 15,415 liters of water to make one steak! Imagine all the water that could be saved by following a vegan diet.
8. Buy natural fibre clothing
There are plenty of ‘sustainable fashion’ brands that are claiming their products are eco friendly because they’re made from recycled plastics. But lately, researchers have found that these well intended brands may be doing more harm than good by introducing recycled plastic clothing into the wash cycle. Apparently, microfibers — tiny synthetic threads less than 1 mm in size — may actually be the biggest source of plastic in the ocean. And many of them may come from simply washing clothing made from synthetic fibres – including recycled plastics.
Earth Island reports that Dr. Mark Browne, an ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at the National Center of Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California, states that every time a synthetic garment — that is, anything made from non-organic fibres – goes through the spin and rinse cycle in a washing machine, it sheds a large number of plastic fibers. Most washing machines don’t have filters to trap these miniscule microfibers, and neither do sewage plants that are responsible for removing contaminants. So every time the water drains from a washing machine, plastic filaments are swept through the sewers and eventually end up in the ocean.
Even swimwear brands – worn directly in the ocean – claim their recycled plastic fibres are ‘eco friendly’ – when they are far from it! Be sure to buy natural fibre clothing, especially swimwear! Akua Oceanwear is one brand that does eco-swimwear beautifully.
9. Don’t take cruises
Cruises are disastrous on the oceans, for many reasons. First, there’s bilge water, which collects in the bottom of the ship. It contains oil from leaky engines as well as other contaminants, and while ships are meant to treat bilge water before dumping it, there have been many, many cases of irresponsible ocean dumping.
And speaking of dumping, with their thousands of passengers, there are tons of human waste that get dumped in the oceans each day – in fact, in a recent EPA survey of boats operating in Alaska, cruise ships reported generating an average of a whopping, 21,000 gallons of sewage a day, as well as a daily average of 170,000 gallons of graywater–water containing soaps, detergents, oils, grease, food waste and other toxins, that drains from sinks, showers, and laundry machines.
Also, the air pollutants that fly out from the ship’s smokestacks include particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides – which cause the acid rain that’s killing ocean life. .
In short, there’s practically nothing worse you can do for the oceans than taking a cruise holiday! See more reasons why here.
10. Get into Clean Beauty
This may seem like an odd one, but the reality is that three major beauty product trends are doing incredible damage to the oceans. Nanoparticles, microbeads and glitter are all contributing billions of incredibly small plastic particles to the oceans. These particles, like clothing microfibres, are impossible to filter out and end up being eaten by marine creatures, and eventually us. They also end up in our drinking water!
But it’s not only products with tiny ingredients that are doing harm to the seas – any cosmetic you use, from shampoo and hair dye to face cream and suncream or makeup – is harming the ocean as soon as you take a shower or go for a swim. Where do you think all those chemicals in those products go when they’re washed off? You got it – directly into the oceans. And yes, it may seem like a little when you do it – but it amounts to a lot when we all do it!
Obviously, the only solution is not to buy such harmful products – but this is easy when there are so many better alternatives available anyway. See here for more information on microbeads, here for nanoparticles, and here for glitter.
All images but last courtesy Akua Oceanwear – a swimwear brand that supports ocean charities.