Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

The Oceans and Human Health

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

The Oceans and Human Health

Article excerpt

For millennia, the oceans have been perceived by mankind as a producer of essential protein, a vital transportation artery, a source of great danger (from storms, hurricanes, typhoons, tsunamis, and venomous and predatory animals) and the greatest mystery on the planet, inspiring untold realms of poetry and prose. The oceans are the world's most important sources of biological activity, water, biodiversity, and biomass production. They supply food, oxygen, and other natural products critical for human existence, and interactions between the oceans and atmosphere shape our climate and weather. Today, we recognize the oceans for all these attributes and also for their marvelous, incredible, and almost infinite diversity of life forms and life processes, as well as the extraordinary potential for many of those life forms, biological and physical processes, and other resources to be harnessed for human welfare. We are just beginning to understand the numerous and complex ways in which humans can affect the oceans, and the oceans, in turn, can affect human health, including the discovery of new pharmaceuticals to fight human illnesses.

Although not truly an island, the United States is bordered on all sides by seas, and the lands immediately adjacent to the coast annually contribute over $1 trillion to the U.S. economy. In addition, our coastal waters provide invaluable waste processing and other ecologic services for free. Approximately 25% of the country's land area lies within coastal counties, which provide homes and workplaces for > 50% of our population. In addition, ocean-based tourism is the fastest growing component of the coastal economy, with hundreds of millions of Americans and international guests visiting our coasts annually. Not surprisingly, coastal population densities are several times higher than in the rest of the nation, and coastal sprawl is consuming land at [greater than or equal to] 3 times the rate of population growth. These trends are projected to continue and may accelerate, resulting in permanent alterations to a large portion of the coastal landscape and potentially serious impacts on marine ecosystems and public health.

Estuaries--those places where freshwater rivers meet and mix with the saltwater of the ocean--are dynamic environments renowned for their ecologic complexity, biological productivity, and seafood harvests and for the critical nursery habitat they provide for many ecologically and economically important species. Linking the land to the sea, the shallow tidal creeks and embayments along the shores of larger estuaries are the first zone of impact for many of the chemical and microbial pollutants washed or released into estuaries. As nurseries for the early and generally most sensitive life-history stages of many species of fish and invertebrates, these areas may provide early warnings of ensuing harm to the environment and to humans. In addition, the continental shelf and even the open ocean show increasing evidence of human-derived pollutants, such as occurrences of pathogens and persistent organic pollutants in offshore marine mammals.

Estuarine and coastal processes are increasingly being affected by humans, with consequent impacts on coastal ecosystems and the humans who live, work, and play there. Principal sources of pollution are urban and agricultural runoff, municipal sewage discharges, atmospheric deposition of airborne pollutants, and industrial wastewater. Other causes of degradation include shoreline modification, overfishing, introduction of invasive species, and high-density recreational use. Increasing incidences of beach closures, fish and shellfish consumption advisories, harmful algal blooms, and occurrence of toxic chemicals and pathogenic microorganisms in coastal waters, sediments, and biota are indicative of the extent of the problem. Changes in marine ecosystems due to global warming and other stressors also pose increased threats to human health from microbial agents transmitted via water, food, or other vectors, or which may be harbored in animal reservoirs. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.