The dam­age we’re do­ing runs deep

The Compass - - Editorial - Rus­sell Wanger­sky East­ern Pas­sages Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@tc.tc — Twit­ter: @ Wanger­sky.

Don’t think we’re af­fect­ing ev­ery sin­gle part of this world? Talk to the hun­gry shrimp.

More to the point, col­lect the deep­est of deep-wa­ter am­phipods and see what nasty hu­man waste they are car­ry­ing around in their flesh.

You couldn’t get fur­ther away from hu­mans than the bot­toms of the Mar­i­ana Trench, in the North Pa­cific, and the Ker­madec Trench, near New Zealand.

More than 10,000 me­tres below the sur­face, you’d think that if any place on Earth would be safe from our greasy fin­ger­prints, those would be the sorts of places.

No hu­mans have even been close to be­ing there. Now, re­searchers have dropped an ocean lan­der in free fall to the bot­tom of each of the re­spec­tive trenches, and later re­cov­ered it by sig­nal­ing the de­vice to re­lease its bal­last weights. Am­phipods were trapped us­ing a de­light­ful “odour plume” of mack­erel the beast­ies could smell — but not eat, to pre­vent them from pick­ing up pol­lu­tants that way.

That’s be­cause the sci­en­tists do­ing the re­search were look­ing for two per­sis­tent pol­lu­tants, both man­made chem­i­cals — poly­chlo­ri­nated biphenyls (PCBs) and a newer flamere­tar­dant, poly­bromi­nated biphenyl ethers (PBDEs).

The re­sult­ing pa­per, “Bioac­cu­mu­la­tion of per­sis­tent or­ganic pol­lu­tants in the deep­est ocean fauna,” was pub­lished in the jour­nal Na­ture by Alan J. Jamieson, Ta­mas Malkocs, Stu­art B. Piert­ney, Toynubo Fu­jii and Zulin Zhang. It was pub­lished on­line on Feb. 13 — you can read it here: http://go.na­ture. com/2lItenj

Now, this is the type of re- search that busi­ness-cen­tric gov­ern­ments de­spise. It can’t be “mon­e­tized,” it doesn’t build faster trains or im­prove the func­tion of mi­cro­pro­ces­sors.

In fact, the more busi­ness­cen­tred a gov­ern­ment is, the less likely they’ll be happy about fund­ing re­search that might even be seen as in­hibit­ing the free­dom of in­dus­trial pro­cesses, es­pe­cially when the re­search finds that — par­don the lan­guage — we’re crap­ping in our own back­yards. And our liv­ing rooms. And our fridges. And pretty much ev­ery­where else. What did the study find? “The salient find­ing was that PCBs and PBDEs were present in all sam­ples across all species at all depths in both trenches,” the sci­en­tists wrote. “Con­tam­i­nant lev­els were con­sid­er­ably higher than doc­u­mented for nearby re­gions of heavy in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion, in­di­cat­ing bioac­cu­mu­la­tion of an­thro­pogenic con­tam­i­na­tion and in­fer­ring that th­ese pol­lu­tants are perva- sive across the world’s oceans and to full ocean depth.”

And the pol­lu­tion isn’t just at min­i­mum mea­sur­able lev­els; no, we leave a mark that’s much larger than that. “In­deed, in the Mar­i­ana, the high­est lev­els of PCBs were fifty times more con­tam­i­nated than crabs from paddy fields fed by the Liaohe River, one of the most pol­luted rivers in China. The only North­west Pa­cific lo­ca­tion with val­ues com­pa­ra­ble to the Mar­i­ana Trench is Su­ruga Bay, Ja­pan, a highly in­dus­tri­al­ized area with his­tor­i­cally heavy us­age of organochlo­rine chem­i­cals,” the sci­en­tists wrote.

The rea­son for the deep­wa­ter con­tam­i­na­tion? The sug­ges­tion is that there’s both an in­dus­trial cause, and a more in­di­vid­ual one. The in­dus­trial cause is the orig­i­nal re­lease of the pol­lu­tants through in­cin­er­a­tion and spills. The other is every­body’s love of the con­ve­nience of plas­tics, which are now also ev­ery­where in the world’s oceans as tiny, bro­ken-down plas­tic shards.

“First, the high lev­els of the Mar­i­ana PCBs may orig­i­nate from prox­im­ity to the in­dus­tri­al­ized re­gions in the North­west Pa­cific and the North Pa­cific Sub­trop­i­cal Gyre, famed for its rep­u­ta­tion as the ‘Great Pa­cific Garbage Patch.’ As such, it is lo­cated be­neath a mass ac­cu­mu­la­tion of trapped plas­tic de­bris that ul­ti­mately sinks as the plas­tics de­grade and frag­ment, trans­port­ing per­sis­tent or­ganic pol­lu­tants to depth,” the sci­en­tists sug­gest. Hur­ray. Hu­man im­pact on the Earth is real and broad-based, from the edges of the at­mos­phere to the deep­est oceans.

What we hate to ad­mit is that we deny it pri­mar­ily to pro­tect the com­forts of our own life­styles.

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