What were the specifics of your involvement with this report?
Dr. Stegeman, a biochemist who studies the effects of natural and human-made pollutants on marine organisms, and I led the team that wrote the Ocean Health section. This involved a series of discussions and writing sessions involving an international team of co-authors, which took place between March 2022 and February 2023.
There are a number of key findings. Any in particular that you want to highlight?
One important finding is that the impacts of plastics on ocean and human health are not limited to those associated with improper disposal but involve all stages of the plastic life cycle, from extraction of the raw materials (especially petroleum), through manufacture, use, and disposal. The impacts occur not just from the plastics themselves but also from the many chemicals that are added to the plastics.
How do plastic and microplastics in the ocean impact human health?
We know that many of the chemicals released during the production of plastics or added to plastics when they are made are toxic and have been linked to a variety of diseases in people.
Many people are also concerned about the potential health impacts of exposure to microplastics and nanoplastics, the small microscopic fragments of plastic that are produced when plastics break down in the environment. We know that people are exposed to microplastics from many sources, including from food (including seafood), drinking water, and inhalation from the air. But the possible health impacts of that exposure are not yet well understood.
How did you personally become interested in the marine plastics issue?
I was 12 in 1970 when the first Earth Day happened and a teenager when I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I think these experiences set me up to care about the health of our natural environment. I pursued a graduate degree in toxicology from a medical school. For my career I wanted to apply what I had learned in graduate school to the marine environment. I came to WHOI in 1987 to work with Dr. Stegeman. Since then, I’ve been in a position to bridge human and environmental health fields through my interest in marine pollution and its consequences.