Indicators of Ocean and Human Health

By Dewailly, Eric; Furgal, Chris M. et al. | Canadian Journal of Public Health, September/October 2002 | Go to article overview

Indicators of Ocean and Human Health


Dewailly, Eric, Furgal, Chris M., Owen, Richard, Knap, Anthony, Galvin, Jennifer, Baden, Dan, Bowen, Bob, Depledge, Michael, Duguay, Linda, Fleming, Lora, Ford, Tim, Moser, Fredricka, Suk, William, Unluata, Umit, Canadian Journal of Public Health


Much of the text of this paper forms the basis for another paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives.(1) The focus of the current paper is on the meeting discussions and conclusions regarding indicators for ocean and human health.

Correspondence: Chris Furgal, Public Health Research Unit, CHUQ - Pavillon CHUL, 2400 rue d'Estimauville, Beauport, QC G1E 7G9, Tel: 418-666-7000 ext. 555, Fax: 418-666-2776, E-mail: christopher.furgal@crchul.ulaval.ca

This paper is the result of a NIEHS-funded conference held in Bermuda in November, 2000 to discuss indicators of ocean and human health. The conference brought together international experts in the areas of marine ecosystem and human health. The result was a list of indicators for aspects of ocean and human health, identification of research needs and the development of an approach to deal with these issues. What is presented here is the discussion relating to environmental health indicators relevant to marine environments.

At present, it is estimated that 60% of the world's population lives in coastal areas and human population growth in coastal zones is about twice that of the global rate. This settlement pattern has exacerbated the rate of change in coastal systems and has already placed the goal of "sustainable development" out of reach for some regions. The world population is estimated to increase from about 5 billion (at present) to 8.3 billion by 2025, with 90% of this growth occurring in subtropical and tropical countries. At the same time, over 2 billion people world-wide rely on seafood as a major source of protein in their diet and global seafood consumption continues to increase.(2)

There are many potential sources of contamination of the marine system. Only a subset of these are of specific concern to the issue of Ocean and Human Health. As determined by the conference participants, priority issues include: persistent organic pollutants (POPs), a few specific heavy metals, algal toxins, pathogens, pharmaceuticals and possibly genetically modified organisms. Routes of human exposure to marine products include ingestion, dermal exposure and inhalation. The largest concern for public health is the ingestion of contaminated seafood, putting those humans who ingest large quantities of seafood at greatest risk.

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs)

POPs are a loosely defined group of substances which, aside from petroleum hydrocarbons and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, include all synthetic substances that result from industrial activities. The introduction of POPs to the marine environment arises from direct discharge (point sources), discharge to municipal sewage systems or rivers, and venting to the atmosphere. These compounds are best classified in terms of their a) toxicity, b) persistence, c) tendency to bioaccumulate, d) bioavailability, and e) source functions (size and nature of the land-based sources). Current scientific knowledge of these compounds is still limited and new compounds continue to be identified. Polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are derived from thermal transformations of fossil fuel, primarily petroleum. Some are formed by natural low temperature metamorphic processes. The primary human health concerns related to these substances deal with their carcinogenicity.(3) They enter the marine system through municipal or industrial effluents or via atmospheric pathways from industrial emissions, through exhaust fumes of internal combustion engines or from domestic heating systems and humans are exposed to these substances primarily through food chain consumption.

Most POPs have been linked to possible endocrine-disrupting functions and there are links between herbicide exposure and reduced sperm counts in males living in agricultural regions. Human exposure to POPs occurs primarily through ingestion of contaminated foods, often procured directly from the environment (e.g., small traditional fishing communities, etc. …

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