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1 Living with the oceans. – A report on the state of the world's oceans

Organic pollutants

Organic pollutants in the marine environment

> It has long been known that specific toxins accumulate in the natural environment and in living organisms, causing damage to health. As a result, the use of many of these chemicals is now prohibited. However, new toxic substances that were not initially recognized as a threat are frequently detected in the environment. Polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are one current example. There is still no solution to this problem

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The downside of consumption

Chemical-based products are found in plastic casing for computers, in athletic-hall flooring, in rubber soles for jogging shoes – the applications are endless. In consequence, a very wide range of chemicals is used in industry today. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), approximately 100,000 different chemical substances are currently on the market worldwide. In Europe alone, approximately 10,000 chemicals are produced and marketed annually in amounts of greater than 10 tonnes. It is estimated that between 1 and 3 per cent of these chemicals are problematical. These environmentally relevant pollutants include heavy metals such as lead and mercury, which are released into the environment by the burning of oil, mining activities, and industrial emissions and effluents. Persistent organic pollutants, known as POPs, are another problematical substance category.

4.6 > During the phocine distemper virus (PDV) epidemics in 1988 and 2002, thousands of dead seals were washed up on German beaches and had to be collected and destroyed.
4.6 > During the phocine distemper virus (PDV) epidemics in 1988 and 2002, thousands of dead seals were washed up on German beaches and had to be collected and destroyed. © www.deff.de

Poisonous and persistent – POPs

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants adopted in 2001 deals with persistent organic pollutants (POPs), i.e. substances that possess toxic properties and resist degradation. They include pesticides such as DDT and lindane, industrial chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and substances such as dioxins, which are the unwanted by-products of manufacturing and combustion processes. As these substances are highly stable and therefore non-degradable to a large extent, they can be transported over long distances and accumulate in the environment.
POPs cause problems because they are stored in the fatty tissue or organs of animals, where they can have toxic effects. For example, they can disrupt the endocrine system, cause cancer or genetic defects, and weaken the immune system.
Various effects of POPs on marine mammals have been investigated. Studies of Baltic ringed seals (Phoca hispida) and grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) found uterine occlusions, stenoses and tumours, resulting in reduced reproductive ability. Other observed effects included colonic ulcers, as well as reduced bone density, which led to changes in the skeletal system. In seals and porpoises, researchers found indications that POPs depress the immune and endocrine systems. A further topic of discussion in this context is whether these pollutants and the weakening of the immune system affect the spread of epidemics, such as the disease that killed thousands of seals in the North Sea in 1988 and again in 2002 – probably an epidemic of the phocine distemper virus.
Humans mainly ingest POPs from food and drinking water, but also from the air (mainly by breathing in dust particles) and through the skin (through direct contact with the chemicals). The highest concentrations of POPs are generally found in marine mammals and humans, both of which are at the top of the food chain.

4.7 > Bioaccumulation of toxins in the marine food chain has long been recognized as a problem. The process illustrated here relates to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a typical environ-mental toxin.
4.7 > Bioaccumulation of toxins in the marine food chain has long been recognized as a problem. The process illustrated here relates to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a typical environ-mental toxin. © maribus (after Böhlmann, 1991)

Polyfluorinated compounds: a fresh cause for concern

Besides the “classic” POPs, mentioned above, new types of persistent toxic compounds of non-natural origin were identified in the environment at the end of the 1990s, which could not be detected before as the appropriate technology and analytical methods had not yet been developed. These include polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which have been used in a wide variety of every-day applications for more than 50 years. PFCs are mainly used as fluoropolymers in the textile industry, for example, in the manufacture of breathable membranes for outdoor clothing, and in the paper industry in the production of water-, stain- and grease-proof paper (e.g. fast-food packaging). They are also used for surface treatment of furniture, carpets and clothing textiles and in non-stick coatings for cookware (such as Teflon frying pans).
It is believed that a total of six manufacturers have produced around 4500 tonnes of PFCs every year over the past decade: a relatively small amount compared with other chemicals. This group of substances is significant nonetheless, due to its environmentally relevant properties, as some PFCs are highly bio-accumulative in organisms.
At present, more than 350 different PFCs are known to exist. The best-known is perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, more commonly known as PFOS. Based on animal experiments with PFOS, researchers conclude that repeated exposure can have an extremely adverse effect on human health; among other possible effects, it may cause damage to the liver. PFOS may also be carcinogenic, and it is also thought to impair the development of progeny. PFOS therefore recently became the first PFC to be listed as a persistent organic compound (POP) under the Stockholm Convention, which means that it is now on the list of particularly hazardous chemicals for which a worldwide ban is to be imposed. >

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