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ONE OCEAN          By Roger Payne

Though we distinguish between the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, etc., there is really but one ocean. It is the home of all the fish, crabs, seaweed and whales that exist (except, of course, the river and freshwater species). No matter where you live along any seashore, a whale may pass along your coast, or come into any harbor or bay deep enough to float it. And sometimes they do. When that happens, it is always a thrill. It seems to send a message that speaks directly to people — one that sets up waves that somehow beat down any barrier of disinterest.

Humpback Whale A humpback whale with dolphins
Photo: Iain Kerr

No matter where we live or what shore we visit the air and the ocean bring all of the problems that anyone has created elsewhere home to us, however far away those problems may have been at the start.

The consequences of not understanding that every ocean is one ocean, and that all the air is one atmosphere is to fail to appreciate one of the most important aspects of seawater and air: that they are liquids and gasses which move freely, and because each is a single connected whole (with both mediums in intimate contact), that together they act as the single most gigantic distribution system on earth, carrying the substances we spill or vent into them from any point anywhere to all points everywhere. No matter where we live or what shore we visit the air and the ocean bring all of the problems that anyone has created elsewhere home to us, however far away those problems may have been at the start.

To fail to appreciate this is to fail to realize that when we think we are confining our pollution to the immediate vicinity of a single city smokestack, or our deadly synthetic contaminants to just one sewage outfall what we are actually doing is making sure that these substances get spread everywhere. When a mother grabs the bottle of some deadly poison, say an insecticide, from her two year old's hands and pours it down the sink to get rid of it (while lecturing him on the dangers of playing with such an awful thing) what she is actually achieving is the possibility that some of that insecticide will later get into her child.

The stuff she throws out and then vigorously washes down the drain, plunges, as if over a waterfall down through the S-shape trap, hurtling into darkness and from there into the cesspool where it may seem to have reached its final resting place. But not so: it goes out from the cesspool into the leaching field and seeping out of the pipes through small holes and into the crushed stone field surrounding them, and from there, wicking between particles of earth and into the soil. Surely this is the last resting place of the poison; but no. Two years later her son is playing in the back yard, digging for treasure. His shovel is harder to use than his hands so he continues digging with them, scooping out the soft, moist soil a foot below the surface. The septic system was well designed to make sure no fecal matter is present in this soil, but it was, like all such systems, completely incapable of getting rid of immortal molecules such as those found in insecticide, or of affecting detoxifying them in any significant way. Later, when it is time for lunch her son comes in, and, for the 800th time in his life fails to wash his hands before eating. And so he ends up eating some of the insecticide as a deadly garnish on his sandwich.

When a mother grabs a bottle of insecticide from her two year old's hands and pours it down the sink ... what she is actually achieving is the possibility that some of that insecticide will later get into her child.

But, I hear you say, you don't have a septic system; your waste water goes into the town sewer line. The story is the same, only that the route is a bit different and the delays a bit longer. As with the septic system, when the sewage is processed the insecticide molecules remain unchanged, because sewage systems have no way of dealing with insecticide molecules. But they get discarded into a river anyway, along with properly treated waste water, and are carried by that river to the sea. Here they dissolve down into vanishingly low concentrations and that would seem to solve the problem. But a new process now begins. It is a bit like watching the sorcerer's apprentice, for what now happens is that the oil droplets inside microscopic plants and animals slowly assemble and reconcentrate the widely scattered molecules of the insecticide and store them away in the fats and oils of the fish we eat. The way this is achieved is that every time an insecticide molecule dissolved in water happens to encounter a drop of oil in some planktonic plant it goes immediately into solution in the oil. This is because these poisonous molecules preferentially dissolve into any oil rather than water and such fats and oils are found in all plants. When some planktonic plant gets eaten by some planktonic animal the insecticide molecule, being immortal, remain intact, and so, when the planktonic animal is eaten in turn by a small fish, which is later consumed by a larger fish, the poisonous molecules, still unchanged, are concentrated in the final predator. In this way they travel up food chains, concentrating by about ten times at each step of the chain (i.e. in each successive predator). By the time the insecticide molecules have reached the kind of fish that the mother who first threw out the insecticide likes to serve to her family, they may be back to a high enough concentration in that fish to cause serious problems for the her family. Only by discarding the insecticide properly can she prevent it from entering her child. But this is a huge big nuisance; most of us have no idea how to accomplish the safe disposal of such substances, and even if we did would have little time to give to taking the proper steps.

When some planktonic plant gets eaten by some planktonic animal the insecticide molecule, being immortal, remains intact, and so, when the planktonic animal is eaten in turn by a small fish, which is later consumed by a larger fish, the poisonous molecules, still unchanged, are concentrated in the final predator.

And what makes such scenarios possible? The fact that water is the great mover\distributor of every chemical, coupled with the fact that we now manufacture poisonous substances that are all but immortal and then discard them carelessly. Added to the fact that because we don't understand these mechanisms we fail to understand how dangerous they are. If we get only a little of these immortal poisons in our systems during our lifetimes we may be alright, but after a few years of eating them in small amounts they inexorably accumulate to levels which can cause serious mischief in our lives. The problem is that we all but ignore how dangerous it is to discard long-lived poisonous molecules into the air or the sea, and so, without meaning to, we incorporate them into our own bodies and into the bodies of our family.

If we get only a little of these immortal poisons in our systems during our lifetimes we may be alright, but after a few years of eating them in small amounts they inexorably accumulate to levels which can cause serious mischief in our lives.

We are boarding a ship on our way to some cruise vacation when we observe with disgust in some corner of the harbor wharves a group of rats moving around in a sewer outfall that is dribbling some foul-smelling substances into the harbor, adding it to a filthy oil slick dotted with floating garbage and other matter. If the substances in the outfall are biodegradable serious problems are unlikely. But if they are immortal, synthetic poisons which are not broken down in nature (simply because they have never until recently existed in nature and therefore there are no natural mechanisms that can handle them) they will end up polluting the entire ocean. The connection most of us fail to make is that soon we will be swimming through the most dangerous components of that pollution ourselves, or eating meals with concentrated forms of it in them. This is because chemicals like the ones we are seeing now but which reached the harbor several months or years ago, have by now reached the "pristine" beaches towards which we are bound. Meanwhile, of course, the chemicals we have just witnessed will reach those same beaches and the fish in between late next year when it is time for our next vacation. And we will be swimming in the same brew, and eating the same polluted fish, only we will be further away from where we can see that there is a problem. All this occurs, simply because all salt water is part of a single, continuous ocean.

To avoid such dire problems, we need to think before discarding poisons into the sea, and to realize that what we are achieving is simply to introduce a delay before the same substance returns to haunt us once more.

It has often been said that "the solution to pollution is dilution," and that is true up to a point. But some of the molecules now finding their way into our lives are toxic in incredibly small concentrations. If they were more soluble in ocean water they would pose little or no problem. However, the worst ones are all but insoluble in seawater, but are so soluble in fats that they immediately go into solution out of seawater and into any fat with which they come in contact. Thus the solvent in which the vast majority of them will end up is fat. But, alas, the ocean of fat is a very small ocean indeed: rather too small to dilute down to harmless concentrations all of the poisons that have and will find their way into it. The consequences of this are serious, and constitute, what is, I believe, probably one of the most important threats facing humanity: the slow, inexorable accumulation of toxic substances in our bodies.

To avoid such dire problems, we need to think before discarding poisons into the sea, and to realize that what we are achieving is simply to introduce a delay before the same substance returns to haunt us once more.

 
 
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