Marine Toxicologist, Doctor of Public Health, director/founder, Marine Environmental Research Institute, Blue Hill, ME
Professor, Department of Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public Health, State University of New York, Albany, NY
A marine toxicologist, explorer, author, and passionate ocean advocate, Susan Shaw is widely known for her pioneering research on the toxic legacy of man-made chemicals in the ocean environment. She is credited as the first scientist to show that flame retardant chemicals used in consumer products have contaminated marine mammals and commercially important fish stocks in the northwest Atlantic. Her research has influenced policy decisions in the US and abroad, including the Maine legislature’s decision to ban the neurotoxic flame retardant Deca, and the subsequent US phase-out of the chemical.
An outspoken and influential voice on ocean pollution, Shaw dove in the Gulf of Mexico oil slick in May 2010 and has informed the national debate on the hazards of chemical dispersants. She is currently leading a region-wide investigation on the effects of oil and chemical dispersants in the Gulf ecosystem and serves on the US Department of Interior’s Strategic Sciences Working Group, a team of scientists charged with assessing consequences of the oil spill and recommending policy actions. She appears in several documentary films on the Gulf disaster including Animal Planet’s Black Tide: Voices of the Gulf and Green Planet’s The Big Fix, the Official Selection documentary at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Shaw chairs The Explorers Club State of the Oceans Forums highlighting solutions to the crisis facing the world’s oceans. She is a keynote speaker at universities and major venues around the world. In November 2011, she delivered the keynote address on marine pollution at the Swedish Society for Marine Sciences Conference Visions of the Sea that was attended by King Carl Gustav.
A Fulbright Scholar with dual degrees from Columbia University in film and public health/environmental health sciences, Shaw published Overexposure, the first book on the health hazards of photographic chemicals, in 1983 with Ansel Adams. She is a Professor at The School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health Sciences, State University of New York, Albany, and serves on the International Panel on Chemical Pollution, a select group of scientists advising policymakers on the management of toxic chemicals in developed and developing countries.
The recipient of numerous awards, Dr. Shaw is a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Scholar and was named Gulf of Maine “Visionary” by the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment. In 2011, she received the Society of Women Geographers’ Gold Medal Award, joining the ranks of Amelia Earhart, Margaret Mead, Jane Goodall, and Sylvia Earle. She is the 19th woman to receive the society’s highest award in 78 years.
In March 2012, Dr. Shaw received the Explorers Club Citation of Merit Award for “extraordinary feats of exploration and research” and her leadership role in ocean conservation at the Explorers Club Annual Dinner ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York City.
- Chair, State of the Oceans Forums at the Explorers Club, New York. An ongoing series of public forums with leading ocean scientists Drs. Sylvia Earle, Nancy Knowlton, David Gallo and Honorary Chairman Jim Fowler to focus attention on the crisis facing the oceans from cumulative multiple impacts and solutions.
- Project leader, Seals As Sentinels, a long-term series of investigations of the impacts of toxic contamination in the northwest Atlantic marine ecosystem. The project began in 2000 and is the first region-wide investigation of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) including brominated flame retardants in marine mammals and fish along the northwest and mid-Atlantic (from eastern Canada to Long Island, New York). The State of Maine 123rd Legislature recognized this body of work with a Citation of Recognition in 2007 and Shaw was named Gulf of Maine Visionary by the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment.
- Project leader, Gulf EcoTox, an investigation of the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico marine food web. This study looks at the fate and potential effects of oil and chemical dispersants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and toxic metals in marine species from shellfish to large fish.
- First report of the occurrence of PBDEs, polybrominated diphenyl ethers and HBCDs, hexabromocyclododecanes, brominated flame retardant chemicals used in consumer products in tissues of harbor seals and commercially important marine fishes (hake, herring, mackerel, alewife, plaice, flounder) along the northwest Atlantic. First study to demonstrate that PBDEs readily bioaccumulate and biomagnify at the top of this marine food web, resulting in high levels in the top predators, harbor seals. Results indicate that this marine ecosystem is contaminated by all three PBDE commercial formulations marketed in the US (Shaw et al. Science of the Total Environment 2009, 2012). Two products (Penta- and Octa-BDE) were banned or phased out of use by most countries in 2004-2005. The third product, Deca-BDE was banned in the states of Maine and Washington in 2007 and phased out nationwide in 2010.
- First study to show that PFCs, perfluorinated chemicals used in stain-resistant fabrics, fast food wrappers, and nonstick cookware are accumulating in tissues of harbor seals from the northwest Atlantic. Some of the PFCs (PFOS, PFOA) were withdrawn from the market in 2002 because of their cancer-causing effects. The unusual chemical pattern in seal tissues reveals that industry is substituting new, similar PFCs for the old ones that were withdrawn (Shaw et al. Chemosphere 2008).
- First study to show that harbor seals from this region carry high levels of brominated flame retardants (PBDEs) in their tissues (Shaw et al. Chemosphere 2008). The study's findings were part of the evidence put before the Maine state legislature in support of the bill to ban the neurotoxic flame retardant Deca-BDE from commerce.
- First report of cancer-causing chemicals (PCBs, dioxins, PBDEs) in farmed Atlantic salmon from Maine and eastern Canada that detract from the beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids. The study contradicts the current paradigm by demonstrating that removal of skin does not consistently lower contaminant levels in farmed salmon and calls for responsible labeling and a reassessment of health risks associated with human dietary exposure (Shaw et al. Environ.Sci.Tech. 2006; Shaw et al. Chemosphere 2008).
- First study to document elevated levels of legacy (banned) organochlorine chemicals such as PCBs and DDT in tissues of harbor seals along the northwest Atlantic. Their levels are extremely high and comparable to those in seals from the Baltic and other polluted seas, and place them at risk for harmful effects such as immune and thyroid disruption, developmental problems, and infectious disease (Shaw et al. Marine Pollution Bulletin 2005).
- First study to demonstrate a link between dioxin-like chemicals and altered immune responses in free-ranging, live-captured harbor seals from the northwest Atlantic. The combined toxic equivalents (TEQs) of chemicals with dioxin-like activity (PCBs, dioxins, furans) in seal blood were significantly associated with enhanced in vitro lymphocyte responses, indicating that the levels of these chemicals found in wild harbor seals can alter their immune resilience to disease agents (Shaw et al. Organohalogen Compounds 2003).
Other Projects Organized and Led
- The Ocean Environment Lecture Series and the Elisabeth Mann Borgese Distinguished Lectures increase public awareness of critical ocean issues through lectures by international experts and scholars in their fields. The 2012 lecture series is titled The Rachel Carson Lectures in honor of the 50th anniversary of Carson’s courageous landmark book Silent Spring which galvanized the modern environmental movement.
- The Blue Hill Bay Coastal Monitoring Project, the first water quality monitoring program in one of Maine's large watersheds. By helping coastal communities identify and reduce point and non-point source pollution, the project contributes to the vitality of the local economy, its fisheries, and sustainable uses of coastal resources.
- Explorers Club Citation of Merit Award for extraordinary accomplishments in research and leadership in ocean conservation
- 2011 Gold Medal Award, Society of Women Geographers. First awarded to Amelia Earhart in 1933, this highest honor of the Society has been given to 19 women over 78 years.
- Named a 2011 “Woman of the Gulf” by Audubon Society Women in Conservation, 2011 Rachel Carson Awards, New York City.
- Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow 2012.
- MORE Magazine’s 2010 “Noisemaker” Award for work in the Gulf of Mexico.
- Fellow, The Explorers Club Fellow, New York City.
- Fellow, WINGS World Quest, New York City.
- Gulf of Maine Visionary Award, Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment representing New England states and Atlantic Canada.
- 2007 Citation of Recognition, State of Maine 123rd Legislature.
- Fulbright Scholar, Chile.
Featured Speaking Events (selected)
- Keynote speaker on the impacts of pollution on ocean life and human health at venues in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
- Keynote address on ocean pollution, 2011 Swedish Society for Marine Sciences Conference, Stockholm, Sweden.
- Session Chair 2003-2011, International Dioxin Symposia on Halogenated Persistent Organic Pollutants held in Tokyo, Japan, Oslo, Norway, Berlin, Germany, Toronto, Canada, Birmingham, UK, Venice, Italy, Gyeongju, Korea, Beijing, China, San Antonio, TX, and Brussels, Belgium.
- Session Chair 2010, Marine and Coastal Pollution at the Asia Pacific Meeting of the Society of Toxicology and Chemistry in Guangzhou, China.
- Session Chair 2008, Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, Cape Town, South Africa.
- Recent lecture venues: University of California, Berkeley, University of Southern Maine, American Museum of Natural History, The Explorers Club, New England Aquarium, Western Academy of Beijing, China, Ehime University, Matsuyama, Japan.
Service to Science & Community
Dr. Shaw's appointments include:
- Professor, Department of Environmental Health Services, School of Public Health, State University of New York at Albany, NY.
- Faculty, Institute for Health and the Environment, SUNY at Albany, NY.
- US Department of Interior Strategic Sciences Working Group (SSWG), a team of 14 scientists charged with assessing health consequences of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and recommending policy actions.
- International Panel on Chemical Pollution, a select group of scientists advising policymakers on the management of toxic chemicals in developed and developing countries.
- Editorial Board, international journal Reviews on Environmental Health, Tel Aviv.
- Ocean Studies Advisory Board, Cornell School of Ocean Studies, Maine Maritime Academy, Castine, ME.
- Ecosystem Indicator Partnership (ESIP) and Gulfwatch Contaminants Monitoring Committee, Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment.
- Delegate,United Nations Economic and Social Council on Ocean Pollution, Sustainable Ocean Development, and Marine Affairs, New York, Geneva, and Vienna.
- Delegate, Advisory Committee on Pollution of the Sea (ACOPS), London, UK.
Primary Research Interests
Ocean pollution, oceans in crisis. Bioaccumulation, biomagnification, and toxicity of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in marine ecosystems. Emerging contaminants of concern such as the halogenated flame retardants, perfluorinated chemicals, in marine wildlife and people. Hazards of chemical dispersants used in oil spills.
Dr.P.H. Columbia University, School of Public Health, Division of Environmental Health Sciences
M.P.H. Columbia University, School of Public Health, Division of Environmental Health Sciences
M.F.A. Columbia University, Graduate School of Arts/ Film
Author of numerous peer-reviewed articles, reports, and general publications on ocean pollution, marine mammals, seafood safety, and public health. Available on request.
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