NBC-TV News Interviews Dr. Susan Shaw on build up of toxic chemicals in our oceans
Dr. Susan Shaw discussed the build up of toxic chemicals in our oceans in a “207” program interview on NBC-affiliate station WCSH6 in Portland, Maine, on June 8. Dr. Shaw’s interview was replayed online on June 14 on sister-station WLBZ in Bangor, Maine.
Dr. Shaw was in Portland as a featured speaker at the University of Southern Maine to commemorate World Oceans Day and the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. The event, hosted by the Maine Coastal Program, focused on the achievements of women in ocean exploration and advocacy. Dr. Shaw was joined by Anne Doubilet, a Hall of Fame diver and underwater photographer for National Geographic, and Dr. Nancy Knowlton, a coral reef and biodiversity scientist from the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural History Museum.
Based on her pioneering research on the toxic legacy of man-made chemicals in the ocean environment, Dr. Shaw addressed the current imperiled state of the world’s oceans and the importance of preserving marine ecosystems for current and future generations. She also announced an upcoming advocacy campaign to deal with ocean toxics. Called STOP!, which stands for Stop Toxic Ocean Pollution, Dr. Shaw’s initiative will inform people about the toxic chemicals that they’re exposed to every day. She believes this knowledge is powerful and that the campaign will raise awareness and encourage personal action.
Interviewer Introduction: How healthy are the world’s oceans? What are some of the biggest threats humans pose to those oceans? Those are just a couple of questions that Dr. Susan Shaw thinks about every day. She is a marine toxicologist and the founder of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, and she is with us here today.
Interviewer: Let’s go back to that first question: How healthy are the world’s oceans?
Dr. Shaw: There is growing concern that the oceans are becoming more and more polluted and more and more degraded by man-made toxic chemicals, waste, plastics -- all of the billions of tons of toxic substances that go into the oceans every year.
Interviewer: Is this something that has been accelerating as the world becomes more as the world becomes more industrialized, as economies grow, more people in the world use more resources? Does this trend just get worse?
Dr. Shaw: Unfortunately, it is a result of industrialization that we are living in today. Our oceans are actually dying at a rate faster than predicted. We’re seeing the loss of coral reefs; we’ve lost about 50% worldwide, and marine mammals – seals, dolphins, and whales. About one-third of those is in danger of going extinct.
Interviewer: What specifically is causing that? I mean, are there a wide range of things, or is it impossible to say that there is one specific thing? Is it that there are so many threats right now?
Dr. Shaw: That is a good question. It’s actually a cumulative stress situation. There’s pollution, there’s climate change, and there’s overexploitation, which includes overfishing, and the kind of overexploitation that’s going on when we’re drilling offshore for fossil fuels.
Interviewer: If we were to walk out the door and go down to the shores of Casco Bay just a mile or so away, would the water be clearer now that it was, say, forty or fifty years ago when there was sewage being pumped directly into the ocean?
Dr. Shaw: I have to say, there’s some improvement and in Casco Bay. There has been an upward trend to get rid of some of that kind of problem, but overall, the oceans are becoming more toxic, and I know that from my own work.
I’ve been looking at the impact of toxic chemicals in this environment all the way down to New York from Eastern Canada and measuring – actually, doing forensics – measuring toxic chemicals that are building up in the food web and getting into the top predators like seals. We have a program now that’s been going on now for about 12 years called Seals as Sentinels, and from that work, I do know there’s a huge buildup of toxic chemicals in tissue of fish and marine mammals.
So that’s what we’re concerned about. These are chemicals that we’re using now in commerce in every day products. We put flame-retardants into the foam in our furniture, the foam in our mattresses, even the foam in baby strollers. We put flame-retardants into television sets; we put it into our computers. All the chemicals are breaking down and finding their way into the oceans, which are the final sink for them.
Interviewer: So when we eat fish, we’re eating all that nasty stuff?
Dr. Shaw: We certainly are, and it’s one of the problems we have. What is in the fish we’re eating? Fish contain the highest levels of some of these toxic chemicals that are persistent, including the brominated and chlorinated flame-retardants, so it is a problem for us as well. The problems with the oceans are really a survival issue for people.
Interviewer: It’s a pretty bleak picture that you’re painting. Are there any bright spots?
Dr. Shaw: I think we have to start looking at it and really addressing the pollution issue square on. One of the things our Institute is doing is that we’re going to be launching a campaign to deal with ocean toxics. We’re calling it STOP!: Stop Toxic Ocean Pollution. We all can do something. First of all, it’s awareness raising. The knowledge that we’re using products that contain toxic chemicals is powerful. People don’t want to have toxic chemicals in their mattresses, in their sofa, in their baby stroller.
Interviewer: So what’s the step that the average person who is watching you right now listening to you and is distressed by what you’re saying but is thinking “what can I as one individual do,” what is the answer? What can one individual do?
Dr. Shaw: Individuals can become informed about toxic chemicals that they’re exposed to every day. Most of us are unaware that we’re exposed to hundreds of chemicals in our daily life. So that’s one thing. Now, how do you do that? By becoming involved with organizations such as ours.