Oil Spills
Attention for water pollution exploded in the 1980s.  The oil spill of the Exxon Valdez showed many around the world just how horrible the effects of water pollution could be.

However, even the Exxon Valdez spill barely touched the surface of the problem of water pollution.  The ship spilt only 5% of the oil spill that year, and oil is just one of many pollutants that people dump into the water every year.  In fact, more oil is spilled by homeowners while filling their mowers each year than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.

Every year, 14 billions pounds of sewage, sludge, and garbage are dumped into the world's oceans.  19 trillion gallons of waste also enter the water annually.

The problem of ocean pollution affects every nation around the world.  This is especially true because water is able to transport pollution from one location to another through its currents.

For many years, chemicals were dumped into bodies of water without concern.  While many countries have now banned such behavior, it continues to go on today.

As the world has industrialized and its population has grown, the problem of water pollution has intensified.  The simple fact that millions of people live along coastlines and near rivers means that these bodies of water are likely candidates for heavy and destructive pollution.
    All over the world, sewage is dumped into the sea. This ranges from raw, untreated sewage, to partially treated sewage. Chemically, sewage acts like fertilizer and can be responsible for toxic plankton blooms. Another possible effect is deoxification which kills marine life because there is not enough oxygen in the water to breathe.

Sewage may also introduce diseases and unhealthy chemicals, like heavy metals and carcinogens into coastal waters. Although the ocean is good at ridding itself of pollutants by chemical processes and dilution, as coastal populations grow, so do the human impacts on the marine environment.
    Storm Drain and River Run-off
    These sources of marine pollution may begin far away from the coast. The term for this is non-point source pollution.

What goes down the gutter in your neighborhood? Look out your car window and notice the garbage all around.  This garbage, spills from oil and gas, soap from washing cars, and waste from pets, all washes down the storm sewers found along the street.  Lawn chemicals are highly toxic and flow with the rain directly into our watershed through sewers, streams, rivers and lakes.

Storm sewers drain directly into a creek, which flows into a river, which eventually flows into the ocean.  Did you ever think that this stuff might actually end up near your favorite beach?

Fertilizers, soap, and organic wastes will increase plankton and bacteria levels in the ocean the same way sewage does. Oil and gasoline are toxic in both freshwater and saltwater. Debris like trash can entangle or be eaten by birds, fish and mammals, which can be very harmful or deadly.
    The effects of water pollution are varied and depend on what chemicals are dumped and in what locations.

Boston Harbor is an example of how badly pollution can damage bodies of water. The water has lots of toxic waste and sewage, and only gets more waste everytime rainfall pushes it into the harbor.

Many bodies of water near urban areas are highly polluted. This is the result of both garbage dumped by individuals and dangerous chemicals legally or illegally dumped by industries.

The main problem caused by water pollution is that it kills life that inhabits water-based ecosystems. Dead fish, birds, dolphins, and many other animals often wind up on beaches, killed by pollutants in their habitat.

Pollution disrupts the natural food chain as well. Pollutants such as lead and cadmium are eaten by tiny animals. Later, these animals are consumed by fish and shellfish, and the food chain continues to be disrupted at all higher levels.

Eventually, humans are affected by this process as well. People can get diseases such as hepatitis by eating seafood that has been poisoned.

Ecosystems can be severely changed or destroyed by water pollution. Many areas are now being affected by careless human pollution, and this pollution is coming back to hurt humans.



Problems of Plastic

Strolling through the average supermarket, shoppers find an array of items to make their lives easier: individually wrapped snack cakes, plastic baggies to store sandwiches for lunch, unbreakable soda bottles, and disposable razors, diapers, and shampoo bottles.

Image courtesy of: greensboring.com/pod/figure8turtle.jpg

[left: A turtle deformed by
plastic rings]

To marine animals, these items can be a floating minefield.   Plastic, whether it is for a container, a wrapper, or the product itself, has become an everyday part of our lives. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; plastic is also the material diabetics use for their disposable syringes; arthritic patients have for their replaced hips; and construction workers wear to protect their heads; but, when plastic reaches our waters, whether it be plastic bags or drifting fish nets, it poses a threat to the animals that depend on the oceans for food. To a sea turtle, a floating plastic bag looks like a delicious jellyfish. Plastic pellets, the small hard pieces of plastic from which plastic products are made, look like delicious fish eggs to seabirds. Drifting nets entangle birds, fish and mammals, making it difficult, if not impossible to move or eat. As our consumption of plastic mounts, so too does the danger to marine life.

Before the days of plastic, when fishermen dumped their trash overboard or lost a net, it consisted of natural materials:  metal, cloth or paper, that would either sink to the bottom or biodegrade quickly. But plastic remains floating on the surface, the same place where most food sources are found, and can remain so for 400 years. Plastic is durable and strong; just the qualities that make it so desirable to humans makes it highly dangerous when it reaches the ocean.

In 1975, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 14 billion pounds of garbage was being dumped into the ocean every year. That's more than 1.5 million pounds per hour. More than 85% of this trash was estimated to come from the world's merchant shipping fleet in the form of cargo-associated wastes. According to the Academy, the United States could be the source of approximately one third of this ocean pollution.

Fortunately, since 1988, it has been illegal for ships to dump plastics into the ocean. However, that law is difficult to enforce, and cannot account for the thousands of miles of driftnets and other gear lost by fishermen, which can ensnare and kill birds diving for the fish below, or wrap around migrating dolphins, turtles or humpback whales.

The Garbage Patch

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean sits a toxic waste dump of 7 million tons of plastics, spanning twice the size of Texas.  Innocent birds and sea life eat from the "garbage patch" mistaking the plastics for food, blocking their digestive system or killing them from toxicity.  These plastics also leach PCBs and other harmful chemicals into the water, over time causing disease and infertility around the world.

Watch a video about the garbage patch!

While the ocean does disperse the trash, it also runs in currents, which can keep the floating trash traveling constantly in "gyres," concentrating it in areas where currents meet. The largest of these movements, is called the central gyre. It moves in a clockwise circular pattern, moving inside the Gulf Stream, and dominates the western North Atlantic. Studies begun in 1984 have tracked how these currents keep plastics migrating, with heavy concentrations in the northern Sargasso Sea (coincidentally, a favorite spawning place for fish). The Northeast United States, "upstream" of the central gyre, has currents that keep most of the locally generated marine debris local. Usually the only ways to escape this constant circular pattern is if the plastic decays enough to sink, or lands onshore to be (hopefully) picked up by a passer-by.

In the late 1970s, scientists from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory concluded that plastic entanglement was killing up to 40,000 seals a year. Annually, this amounted to a four to six percent drop in seal population beginning in 1976. In 30 years, a 50% decline in Northern Fur Seals has been reported.

Along Florida's coasts, brown pelicans diving for fish sometimes dive for the bait on a fisherman's line. Cutting the bird loose only makes the problem worse, as the pelican gets its wings and feet tangled in the line, or gets snagged onto a tree.

Sea turtles often mistake plastic soda rings, plastic bags, Styrofoam particles and plastic pellets as authentic food. Clogging their intestines, and missing out on vital nutrients, the turtles starve to death. Seabirds undergo a similar ordeal, mistaking the pellets for fish eggs, small crab and other prey, sometimes even feeding the pellets to their young. Despite the fact that only 0.05% of plastic pieces from surface waters are pellets, they comprise about 70% of the plastic eaten by seabirds. These small plastic particles have been found in the stomachs of 63 of the world's approximately 250 species of seabirds.

Wildlife is not the only area to suffer from the effects of marine debris. Plastic bags are the leading external cause of marine engine damage in Massachusetts. Other plastic items foul propellers and interfere with fishing tackle.

What you can do:
Image courtesy of: http://www.zalul.org.il/upimgs/3.9.06%20beach%20clean-up%20156.jpg

[left: Kids
cleaning up
the beach]

Look for alternative materials or avoid excessive packaging when deciding on purchases. Use paper bags, milk and juice in cardboard, and cloth diapers. Insist on paper bags and glass bottles.

Recycle. Many communities currently offer pick-up recycling programs for #1 and #2 plastics. Other forms of plastic may be accepted by a local recycling business. If your community doesn't have a recycling program, contact your city or town hall to request one.

Educate others about the problem of marine debris, enhancing "voluntary compliance through awareness."

Get involved!

Learn More:

Pollution Solutions

Many laws have been created to restrict industries from dumping materials into the water. However, many laws remain weak, and many countries do not restrict water pollution.

In the United States, the Clean Water Act was written to completely put an end to all dumping of pollutants into water. The law has not been that effective in many areas, but in other locations, it has achieved its goals. Since the Clean Water Act, other legislation has been passed as well. Now, eleven different federal government agencies and 21 federal government programs all monitor the quality of water and regulate pollution.

The world has spent tremendous sums of money trying to clean up water. From 1972-1990, the US spent over $250 billion.  Many non-governmental projects are also being carried out in an effort to clean up the water. Industries are beginning to reduce the amount of chemicals they dump into water, and environmental groups are participating in clean-up projects.

The plastics industry, blamed for some of the worst pollution of the water, is making its products degradeable. However, many environmentalists think this is hardly enough. How often to you think about the packaging of the products you are buying and where that packaging will end up when you are done with it? Remember to REDUCE, REUSE, And RECYCLE. Stop buying products in plastic containers and make a big difference for the future of our oceans.

Source courtesy of: http://www.whoi.edu/science/B/people/kamaral/plasticsarticle.html, http://library.thinkquest.org/26026/Environmental_Problems/water_pollution_-_effects.html, http://www.chem.duke.edu/~jds/cruise_chem/oceans/human.html, http://library.thinkquest.org/26026/Environmental_Problems/water_pollution.html, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLrVCI4N67M