8 Pollutants In The Ocean That Can Kill You

By Soomin Park 20 June, 2022

What are the chemicals in our oceans killing us? Warning! You will be grossed out. CWR's Park highlights 8 must know groups from the Economist’s recent report

2 million deaths could be prevented if we had sound chemical mgmt but instead we are drowning our oceans with toxic chemicals that are killing us, our food & biodiversity
POPs are forever & we are addicted to them, heavy metals can cause brain damage, nutrients kill the lungs of our oceans & pesticides poisoned 235,000 people just in 2019
Plastics/oil derivatives multiply pollution effects, pharma in the oceans could cause the next health crisis after COVID19, radiactive elements enter food chains & even personal-care items we use daily contain some of above

Every year we dump millions of chemical pollutants that could kill us into our oceans. That seafood lunch or swim in the ocean isn’t sounding too tempting now. These chemicals cause all sorts of health issues and diseases including cancers, serious neurological & developmental disorders among other conditions.

With sound chemical management,  2 million deaths could’ve been prevented in 2019

In 2019 we could have prevented around 2 million deaths if only we had “sound management and reduction of chemicals in the environment” according to the WHO. But we don’t, and with rampant pollution, lives were shortened by a shocking 53.5 million DALY (disability-adjusted life-years summed up globally) in 2019.

And then there are the impacts on marine life and biodiversity. Plus, this also threatens a key food source for us as well as trillions of dollars and millions of livelihoods.

With such deadly and dire impacts, why have we not already stopped dumping these chemicals? If it is because we don’t know how bad the situation is and what is causing these impacts, that is no longer an excuse, read on and get informed.

Ugh factor – get on top of what pollutes our oceans …

There are at least 350,000 synthetic chemicals and mixtures of chemicals in the world. A recent report by The Economist Impact and the Nippon Foundation The Invisible Wave: Getting to zero chemical pollution in the ocean has categorised them into 12 groups.

Get on top of the 8 chem groups in the ocean that are killing us slowly

You can check out the 264-page report, but if you don’t have time, we’ve summarised them for you here. But instead of the 12, we have summarised them into 8 groups as some share similarities and so can be easier to think of this way.

Warning! You will feel disgusted after this, but the good news is that we can avoid continuing to dump these pollutants – find out how here.

1. Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) + Pseudo-persistent chemicals: ‘dirty’ secret behind fashion & other everyday industries 

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are known as “forever chemicals” as they do not disappear and can travel long distances. These carbon-based chemicals bind to proteins in humans/animals and cause cancers, allergies, and reproductive and developmental disorders and yet can be found in products we use every day – read on to see which products.

POPs are known as “forever chemicals”…

… PFAS is one group; they’re easily found in yoga pants, raincoats, etc.

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) chemicals are just one group of POPs that add €52-84billion (US$54 -88billion) per year in health costs in Europe but because of their resistance to heat, oil, water and stains, the fashion industry absolutely loves using them. This means you can find PFAS easily in your yoga pants and raincoat – or any other water-resistant clothing, bags, and shoes.

Another group of POPs are used in electronic items, paints, and plastics called PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls). Despite their carcinogenic impacts and damage to immune systems, only 17% of them are banned. One-third of already produced 1.3 million metric tons of PCBs are in coastal sediments and travelling around the ocean, even if we decide to ban all of them later on…

DDT is a banned POP, so why aren’t the others?

Perhaps the best-known POP that is already banned is DDT, a once-popular agricultural/household insecticide later proven to cause reproductive abnormality in humans. Clearly, we would not want to wear clothes with DDT sprayed all over so should we not ban the other groups of POPs?

Even the rise in concentrations of less persistent chemicals that dissipate relatively quickly called pseudo-persistent chemicals is also worrying because they are so prevalent in products like pharmaceuticals (later discussed in detail in #5).

All these chemicals are infinitely difficult to assess and the potential hazard may be so severe, say experts – check out more on solutions suggested by them here and below. So, we really should have an all-out ban, one that this expert says should be at a group level than an individual chemical level.

Green-chemistry-New-growth-formula Precautionary-principle-Stopping-pollution

2. Heavy metals: take a heavy toll on human lives

Heavy metals’ notorious toxic effects on humans and the environment are not news. Most of them are produced from heavy industries: lead from mining, oil & gas exploration, and dredging, cadmium from marble, steel and metal-plating industries and mercury from burning coal and cement production.

Heavy metals have a notorious toxic affect on humans…

They cause development impacts on unborn babies or children and literally cut IQ. Mercury accumulates in the brain, spinal cord and the myelin sheaths that coat the nerves and high-level exposure damages the brain, heart, lungs, and kidneys and immune system poisoning. Lead is linked to heart disease, strokes, and cancer – it has caused the highest number of preventable deaths and DALYs as a single chemical according to the WHO last year.

…phasing out leaded-petrol prevented 1.2mn premature deaths + saved US$2.5 tn

Even with disastrous impacts such as above, markets for heavy metals are expanding and more of them are entering the ocean. They’re released in processes like deep sea mining, dredging of harbours and untreated sewage and reach humans through the food chain.

For mercury ingestion, WHO says that 1.7% of children living in subsistence fishing populations in Brazil, Canada, China and Columbia suffered cognitive impairment from eating tainted fish. Banning these would bring enormous health and economic benefits. Phasing out leaded-petrol alone has prevented an estimated 1.2 million premature deaths every year and saved nearly US$2.5 trillion, says UNEP.

3. Nutrients: turning oceans into a lifeless green soup of dead zones

Fertiliser nutrients including nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and human/animal faeces cause eutrophication. While it might not kill us directly, eutrophication creates dead zones, which is formed by algae pulling the oxygen out of water, causing fish and other marine life to die.

Fertiliser runoffs create dead zones…

…cost ~US$4 bn in the Baltic Sea

Eutrophication not only kills the lungs of our ocean but also costs a lot of money by eliminating marine stocks (fish, oysters, and crabs).

A recent study found that runoffs of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers caused €3.8bn-4.4billion (US$4- 4.6billion) economic cost annually in the Baltic Sea.

4. Pesticides: designed to kill insects but they are killing us too

Pesticides are toxins made to kill and should not be overlooked just because they help grow food for the planet. Pesticides account for more than half of the chemicals scheduled for elimination as POPs under the Stockholm Convention, a multilateral treaty to protect human health and the environment from chemicals.

Pesticides should not be overlooked because they help grow food…

…EU Commission gained US$15-52bn/yr worth of benefits from its pesticide control

If more pesticides are managed both economic and health gains are guaranteed. The European Commission (EC) said it has gained €15-50bn (US$15-52bn) worth of environmental and human health benefits annually from the regulation of pesticides in its report.

And among the 2 million preventable deaths with sound management of chemicals according to WHO, 11% (235,000) of them are deaths from poisoning by pesticides, kerosene (carrier for pesticide) and methanol (used in pesticide).

5. Plastics, oil, petrochemical spills: multiplier of the pollution effects

Plastics in the ocean is perhaps the most visible kind of pollution e.g. the video of turtles bleeding from the straw in its nostril. But we also need to know that much of the harm is done out of sight.

Microplastics work as carriers to transport POPs & harmful microorganisms long distances…

Microplastics are so penetrative that it accumulates in animal tissues. Now they are found in human blood and lungs. And more than that, they pick up and work as carriers to transport POPs and other hazardous microorganisms like E.coli long distances. And let’s not forget they’re made of oil. So, when they break down, oil compounds, as well as the added chemicals (e.g. BPA, phthalates or colourants), leach into the environment.

Much like its derivative, oil and petrochemical materials that are spilled into the ocean can cause cancer, mutation and birth defects. The clean-up chemicals for oil spills do not technically eliminate their effects. They rather make them worse by breaking down the oil and increasing its bioavailability to cause problems in our immune, neurological, cardiovascular and pulmonary systems.

6. Pharmaceuticals: one of the biggest potential causes of death by 2050

Medications for humans and animals are supposed to fix illness yet when leaked into the environment they could be causing the next health crisis after the current pandemic – antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

AMR is identified as one of the 10 key threats to global health by WHO. It is caused by leakage of antibiotics because they kill off weaker bacteria leaving room for more dangerous bacteria, a.k.a Superbugs, to flourish. The UK government report forecasts that Superbugs could kill 10 million people by 2050, costing US$60-100 trillion.

AMR is 1 of 10 key threats to global health…

…municipal treatment plants don’t remove pharmaceuticals

And we are doing little about it. For example, current municipal wastewater treatment plants (MWWTPs) don’t deal with complex chemical compounds like pharmaceuticals. A 2017 study on the pharmaceutical levels in the Baltic Sea shows that only nine out of the 188 pharma compounds it assessed were efficiently (>95%) removed by the MWWTPs and nearly half of them showed removal rates below 50%.

7. Radioactivity: catastrophic effects from an unexpected source

Accumulation of radiation causes genetic damage, cancers or even death and thankfully we often see radioactive wastes discharged safely in form of encased within nuclear reactor pressure vessels. But what we do not see are the threats from unexpected sources – accidents, fallouts from nuclear tests, losses at sea and even naturally from offshore oil & gas processes.

Radioactive elements can pass through the food chains to reach humans

These radioactive elements are absorbed by sea plankton and kelp can pass through the food chains which humans eventually are exposed to. According to a study seals and porpoises in the Irish Sea near the UK, nuclear power plant already shows high concentrations of caesium and plutonium.

8. Household & consumer chemicals: ‘dirty’ secret behind personal-care items

Laundry products, detergents, bleach, furniture polish and paints… we use these every day at home, but they contain highly harmful substances which leach into the ocean.

Everyday harmful items like laundry detergent are leaching into the ocean

Even the ones that directly touch our skin like cosmetics, deodorants, shampoos, and shower gels contain these harmful chemicals. We as individuals are releasing these toxins into the waters that eventually reach our oceans.

Sunscreens are another example. To absorb UV light, they contain benzophenone or its derivatives oxybenzone and dioxybenzone which have toxic effects on corals and other marine life. Hawaii, Florida and the country Palau have already banned the use of sunscreens containing similar ingredients.

Good news – there are solutions…

Wondering how you could ever go back into the ocean knowing that it’s practically a toxic cocktail of pollutants…you’re not alone but the good news is that there are some solutions that all stakeholders can act on now. Mini spoiler – we as an individual have a big part to play in tackling marine chemical pollution!

If you want to take more action to help the planet and fight climate change then check out our recent report, ‘Together We Can’ that demonstrates with just small changes to our lifestyles we could make a big difference.

Further reading

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Soomin Park
Author: Soomin Park
Soomin was born in South Korea and lived in Shanghai before she pursued studies in environmental management at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. During her transition from a pristine Jeju island to a populous city, Shanghai, she witnessed the important role of the business and finance sector in tackling the global environmental crisis. To understand their applications of sustainability, Soomin was involved in the development of sustainability-driven strategies in different industries such as investment, FMCG, property development and solar energy. At CWR, Soomin aspires to improve water and natural resources’ commercial usage through closing the knowledge gap of corporates and investors in making climate action. During her free time, she produces comics and other forms of creative media to induce social awareness and feelings of connection among the millennial generation to combat climate challenges.
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