What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the ocean? Maybe relaxing waves and a beautiful beach? Or perhaps your mind wanders to mysterious deep waters filled with peculiar deep-sea creatures?
Regardless of what comes to mind, there’s no denying that the vast power and beauty of our oceans are one of the driving forces of life on Earth. But our oceans – and subsequently our health – are under threat thanks to widespread and worsening pollution.
Today we’re going to explore exactly what our oceans are being polluted with, how this pollution impacts our health, and most importantly – what you can do to protect yourself and our delicate water systems. Let’s dive in.
How Much Pollution Is in the Ocean?
Oceans cover approximately 70% of our planet. And for many years, we took their vastness for granted – assuming that because the ocean is so expansive that the effects of humans would have a minimal impact.
But this assumption couldn’t have been more wrong – and decades of mistreating this delicate ecosystem are catching up to us. It’s estimated that a whopping eight million metric tons of garbage are dumped into the ocean each year.1
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Types and Sources of Water Pollution
Ocean pollution comes in many different forms and from many different sources. Thanks to the direct dumping of discarded waste, run-off from rivers and rain, and pollution deposits from the atmosphere, our oceans have become a cocktail of toxic compounds.
Some of these sources of water pollution include:2,3
Toxic Heavy Metals:
Coal combustion, mining operations, and runoff create an accumulation of toxic heavy metals like mercury, lead, and cadmium. These heavy metals can disrupt the behavior, reproduction, biochemistry, and growth cycles of marine life. Not to mention these heavy metals can then be transferred to humans, causing dangerous effects to your health.
Liquid petroleum and/or waste from large-scale oil industries can accidentally make their way into the oceans from ships transporting oil, offshore oil platforms, and/or drilling rigs. These oil spills typically occur on a large scale and can have serious consequences for our oceans and the creatures that call the ocean home.
While it’s easy to tsk-tsk the oil company with a leaking tanker, the truth is that consumers like you and I actually account for the vast majority of oil pollution in the ocean. It's estimated that land-based sources – like oil and gasoline drips from vehicles and machines from factories, farms, and cities account for a whopping 1 million tons of oil in the ocean each year!
This oil can suffocate marine life, cause reproductive issues, and effectively devastate the entire ecosystem of an affected area.
Our world is chock-full of toxic chemicals. And unfortunately, many of these toxic manufactured chemicals end up in our oceans. Just a handful of harmful chemicals that are making their way into our oceans include:
- Pesticides and herbicides
- Radioactive waste
- Pharmaceutical waste
These calamitous compounds are rapidly accumulating in our seas and can wreak havoc on marine life.
Algae are natural and crucial components of aquatic life and ecosystems. But an overgrowth of algae can tip the scales from healthy to toxic. When toxin-producing algae begin to grow excessively they create what's known as harmful algal blooms.
Pollutants such as industrial waste, pesticides, agricultural runoff, and human sewage can trigger warmer sea waters and spur these harmful algal blooms. The toxins produced by these blooms can contaminate seafood and eventually make their way to humans – causing serious conditions such as dementia, amnesia, other neurological damage, and even death.
Thanks to ships used for shipping cargo and military operations, the ocean has become a rather noisy place. All this noise pollution can actually cause cellular damage to certain sea creatures like jellyfish and anemones. These animals are an important food source for larger marine life and damage to these creatures creates a ripple effect throughout the entire food chain.
While the toxic compounds like oil and manufactured chemicals produced by humans have a monumental impact on our seas, there’s another source of pollution that's rapidly degrading the health of our oceans. So, what exactly is this pollutant?
The answer is – plastic pollution.
Plastic Pollution in the Ocean
Plastic pollution in the ocean is perhaps one of the greatest threats to our environment and human health. Now, plastic makes its way into the ocean through a number of sources including:
Garbage and Plastic Waste:
There’s so much junk that makes its way into our seas that the debris has gathered into “islands” of trash known as garbage patches. These garbage patches are formed by large circulating ocean currents that pull the garbage into the center of the current. There are currently 5 garbage patches floating around our oceans – one in the Indian Ocean, two in the Atlantic Ocean, and two in the Pacific Ocean.4
These accumulations of garbage consist of nearly 80% plastic. This plethora of plastic can become a hazard for marine life. Sea creatures can become entangled in floating plastic or even worse, mistake this garbage for food. When marine life consumes plastic they can choke, sustain internal injuries, or mistakenly give them the feeling of being full and lead to starvation.
What are microplastics? The danger of plastic doesn’t end with floating garbage patches though. You see, plastic doesn’t decompose, but it does slowly break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Over time as plastic breaks down into microscopic particles, it becomes what's known as microplastics.
These microplastics are ingested by small marine species like plankton and mussels and slowly begin working their way up the food chain. These microscopic plastic particles can actually weasel their way directly into the tissues and cells of the animals that ingest them. This triggers inflammation and leaching their toxic chemicals from the microplastics to leach out.5
This poses a threat not only to marine life but also to humans when this seafood ends up on our dinner plates.
Take a peek at the tag on your clothes. Chances are many of your clothes are made from synthetic material like polyester. And while polyester and other synthetic materials are great when it comes to fashion, they’re not so great when it comes to the health of our oceans.
You see, every time you do a load of laundry, you may be potentially washing out over 700,000 tiny fibers released by these synthetic fabrics.6 These itty-bitty fibers are known as microfibers and are another type of microplastic. Unlike natural materials, such as wool or cotton, these microfibers don’t break down and are accumulating in our oceans.
Why Is Ocean Pollution a Problem?
The effects of ocean pollution are far-reaching and can have grave consequences for human health – especially if we continue to pollute our oceans at such an alarming rate. The effects of this water pollution are most evident in our environment.
While it's easy to consider ourselves far removed from something as vast and complex as the ecosystems of our oceans, this couldn’t be further from the truth. With nearly 70% of our earth's surface being covered in ocean water, if we allow our oceans to become a catch-all for the hazardous waste produced by humans, it will inevitably impact everything from wildlife to the economy and from tourism to agriculture.
But one of the most pertinent places this contaminated water from our oceans impacts human health, is through our food supply.
Effects of Ocean Water Pollution on Our Food
As marine life is infiltrated with more and more toxins, those toxins are subsequently passed onto us when we consume processed or fresh seafood. Toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and microplastics all make their way up the food chain – accumulating more and more as they move up each level.
This accumulation of toxins can spell trouble for your health if these toxins begin to accumulate in your body as well. Just a few examples of some of the toxins found in our oceans and the harmful effects they can have on your health include:7,8,9,10
- Heavy metals: Heavy metals like cadmium, lead, aluminum, and others have a well-documented range of damaging effects. An accumulation of heavy metals has been directly linked to organ damage in nearly every body system, including the brain and kidneys. These heavy metals are also known to cause cancer and birth defects.
- Phthalates: Phthalates are what are known as endocrine disruptors – compounds that interfere with your endocrine system hormones and signaling.
- Antibiotics: Pharmaceuticals like antibiotics can end up in our oceans. Overexposure to antibiotics is the main cause of antibiotic resistance, which is a serious and growing threat to our ability to effectively treat bacterial infections.
- Atrazine: This herbicide commonly used in agriculture is a potent hormone disruptor and neurotoxin. It’s known to be particularly damaging to fetal development.
As these and an elixir of countless other toxins continue to pour into the ocean, exposure to these toxic compounds becomes a growing threat to human health.
So, What Can I Do to Protect Myself From Ocean Pollution?
You’re probably wondering exactly what you can do to protect yourself from the harmful and toxic effects of our increasingly toxic oceans. Fortunately, there are some simple and effective steps you can take to not only protect yourself but to do your part in preserving our oceans. Here’s what I suggest:
Protect Yourself From Toxins:
Some of the best ways to protect yourself from toxins include:
- Be mindful of your seafood intake: Because seafood can contain elevated levels of toxins and microplastics, it’s a good idea to limit your intake of fresh seafood to several times a week rather than eating it on a daily basis. Seafood can certainly be a part of a healthy diet, but be mindful of just how much you’re consuming.
- Minimize your toxic burden: We are constantly bombarded with a barrage of toxins. Things like EMFs, indoor-air pollution, and contaminated water all contribute to your overall toxic burden. Implementing simple lifestyle tweaks that help decrease your exposure to these compounds will help your body filter out the unavoidable toxins.
- Enhance your natural detox pathways: In addition to reducing the number of toxins you come into contact with, it can also be helpful to give your body’s natural detoxification abilities a boost. Some of the most powerful ways to supercharge your natural detoxification pathways include PEMF therapy, infrared saunas, and IV vitamin therapy.
- Incorporate detox-boosting supplements: An effective way to amplify your natural detox abilities is to add in a couple of detox-boosting supplements. Some of the most powerful detox boosters include probiotics and collagen to keep your gut healthy, glutathione and Vitamin C to increase antioxidant levels, and detox binders to help eliminate free-floating toxins.
These simple steps can go a long way in safeguarding you against the toxins in our oceans and seafood.
Do Your Part in Preserving Our Oceans:
While it can feel overwhelming, every little action helps. Ways you can do your part to protect and preserve our oceans include:11,12
- Reduce your plastic waste and reuse or recycle plastic when you can so less of it ends up in the garbage and then in our oceans.
- Properly dispose of chemical cleaners, oils, and non-biodegradable items to keep them from ending up down the drain.
- Maintain your car so it doesn’t leak oil, antifreeze, or coolant.
- If you have a yard, consider landscaping that reduces runoff and avoid applying pesticides and herbicides.
- Support local and organic farms that don’t use toxic fertilizers or pesticides and don’t require extensive shipping.
- Install an external microfiber filter on your washing machine. And use a microfiber catching laundry ball or bag, then dispose of the captured microfibers in the trash.
- Participate in and/or organize clean-up efforts of your local waterways.
- Educate yourself on issues facing our oceans and environment. Look for ways to support organizations that work to preserve our coasts and waters.
Your voice and efforts may feel small, but if we all work to do our part, we can make a difference in the health of our oceans.
So, How Worried Should I Be About the Effects of Ocean Pollution?
The effects of water pollution in our oceans are certainly a growing health concern. Especially as our reliance on plastics and manufactured chemicals is not slowing down anytime soon. The idea that toxins are hiding everywhere we turn can be scary and unsettling, to say the least. But the good news is, you and I are not at the mercy of the environment.
While it may be true that we live in a world that’s becoming more toxic by the day, it’s also true that you have so much power over your own health. By being mindful, prioritizing your well-being, and making tiny lifestyle tweaks like those outlined in this article, you have a powerful weapon against the barrage of toxins we face on a daily basis.
If you enjoyed this article and are looking for more ways to prioritize your health and the health of your loved ones, I encourage you to head over and check out my blog. It’s full of helpful resources just like this to keep you informed and equipped with the resources to make healthy living simple. And if you're ready to take it even deeper, you can sign up for my newsletter by entering your name and email address in the form below.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn just how polluted our oceans are? What steps are you taking to protect yourself and our environment? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
- Ocean plastic pollution (ehn.org)
- New Study Finds Ocean Pollution a Threat to Human Health (nih.gov)
- Water Pollution Facts, Types, Causes and Effects of Water Pollution | NRDC
- 35 Surprising Facts About Ocean Pollution That Might Scare You – Conserve Energy Future (conserve-energy-future.com)
- microplastics | Definition, Properties, & Plastic Pollution | Britannica
- article_2_microfibers.pdf (epa.gov)
- A Detailed Review Study on Potential Effects of Microplastics and Additives of Concern on Human Health (nih.gov)
- Microplastic–toxic chemical interaction: a review study on quantified levels, mechanism and implication | SpringerLink
- Pesticide Properties that Affect Water Quality (tamu.edu)
- A-Z List of Contaminants in Water – EH: Minnesota Department of Health (state.mn.us)
- 6 Ways You Can Help Keep Our Water Clean | NRDC
- Plastic Pollution Solutions – 10 Ways to Reduce Plastic Pollution | NRDC
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.