When you think about the types of pollutants in the ocean, your first thought might be those of oil spills. But, unfortunately, there are many more types of pollution in the ocean. Pollution, no matter what form it is, can — and does — have adverse effects on ocean life, including sea creatures and plants. Also, once these pollution sources contaminate the water, they disrupt the delicate ecosystems for life.
Different Types of Ocean Pollutants
Considering that oceans blanket more than two-thirds of our Earth’s surface, the effect of the following types of ocean pollution is felt by everyone and every living thing.
Biological Water Pollution
Bacteria and viruses are often waterborne and if you come in direct contact with the water that is contaminated, it can lead to serious diseases. This doesn’t just include the ocean. This includes washing, drinking, or swimming in contaminated water, which can spread contagious and very serious diseases like typhoid and cholera.
Toxic Chemical Pollution
Toxic chemicals are another common form of water pollution. These are unwanted chemicals that have been added to the water through accidental substance spillage from waste from industries or factories. Other toxic chemical pollutants include:
- Sewage and industrial waste discharge
- Air emissions
- Nuclear waste dumps
- Nuclear power plants
- Nuclear submarines
- Plutonium processing
- Household cleaning products
Pollutants like these reach and sink to the bottom of the ocean where bottom feeding organisms begin ingesting them and the food chain becomes contaminated. The bigger fish eat the smaller fish and humans eat the bigger fish. People who eat the fish end up having their body tissues build up with these toxins which then lead to diseases and illnesses like birth defects, reproductive disorders, cancer, and other long-term health issues.
Pollutants are not always tangible. In the ocean, sound waves can travel for miles. Loud persistent noises from things like oil rigs, sonar devices, ships and natural sources such as earthquakes can disturb the hunting, communication, reproduction patterns, and migration of various marine wildlife, especially dolphins, whales and other aquatic mammals.
The marine environment can be damaged immensely from oil spills. Oil slicks coat the bodies of marine wildlife in water-repelling goop, and can put marine life at risk in various ways. Since oil floats, seabirds that primarily frequent the sea’s surface are most affected.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that when birds or fur-bearing mammals get oil on their feathers or fur, it makes it so they are unable to move or fly properly, feed, or maintain their body temperature. Since their ability to stay warm depend on having clean fur, sea otters are especially at risk of dying because of an oil spill. When an oil spill reaches shore and remains on a beach for an extended period of time, clams, snails, and other similar types of marine life can suffer.
Oil spills can wash up on beaches and contaminate their feeding grounds and nesting areas. When they attempt to clean themselves of the oil, they can actually ingest it which can poison them.
The National Research Council reports that there are four types of oil that typically enters the oceans which include:
- Petroleum extraction
- Petroleum consumption
- Petroleum transportation
- Natural seeps
Oil spills are responsible for 12 percent of the oil entering oceans. Around 36 percent runs down rivers and drains as runoff and waste from industry and cities, according to a US National Research Council study. Each year, millions of gallons of oil and other sources are dumped into the world’s oceans.
Each year, a portion of trillions of tons of garbage makes its way into the oceans. This might not surprise you if you have seen plastic bottles and other garbage washing up on shore. Offshore drilling rigs and ships sometime dump garbage into the ocean. In addition to garbage, another major issue is industrial waste being dumped into the waters. Toxic chemicals like this, which can also include radioactive chemicals, can kill different forms of ocean life.
Even solid trash ends up in the ocean. When not disposed of properly, things like balloons, plastic bags, shoes, glass bottles, and packaging materials can make their way into the ocean.
Marine animals often mistake plastic trash as food since it decomposes very slowly. These plastic materials, especially plastic bags, in high concentrations, have been found blocking the stomachs and breathing airways of various marine species like dolphins, puffins, whales, turtles and seals. Those plastic 6-pack rings you find for drink bottles may choke these animals as well. Aside from this, garbage often gets washed up on shore polluting the coastal habitats and beaches.
Sewage Disposal Pollution
Sewage flows under-treated or untreated in the ocean in many locations of the world. For instance, 80 percent of urban sewage that is released into the Mediterranean Sea is untreated. This sewage can lead to beach closures, human disease, and eutrophication. Other discharged chemical nutrients into the ecosystem of the ocean can result in the decay of plant life, a decline in oxygen levels, and a serious decline in the sea water’s quality itself. This highly affects plants, animals and oceanic life.
Radioactive Waste Pollution
Other contributing pollutants include industrial race (acids and heavy metals), radioactive waste from nuclear reactors, and drained sewage.
Agricultural Runoff Pollution
Fertilizers and pesticides can be washed into smaller water sources like rivers and streams by rainwater, which can be carried into the ocean eventually. Animal waste is another example of agricultural runoff, which isn’t treated like human sewage. For instance, the Gulf of Mexico’s ‘Dead Zone’ that doesn’t have a whole lot of marine life is a result from a runoff into the Mississippi River from Midwestern farms.
Sunscreen can also have serious effects. When divers and swimmers wear sunscreen, the chemicals in it can be washed off into the ocean leading to plant-life on coral reefs being coated with it and suffocating. Reefs have been damaged. These days, they now have more eco-friendly sunscreen available which still protects you from cancerous sun rays, but don’t have the negative side-effects.
Effects of Pollutants in the Ocean
If you find yourself worrying about ocean pollution and how it affects marine life, you are not alone. Many creatures that live in the ocean are being affected by the increase in pollutants. It can be hard to determine specific statistics on pollution and its effect on our ocean life due to the immense size of the ocean and number of animals involved. There are just too many unknowns scientifically. However, some interesting studies have been conducted in smaller parts of the ocean with marine life test groups.
For instance, a Review of Research Journal report published on the Marine Academy’s Oceanography site shows there being over 46,000 items of plastic floating off the Northeast coast of the US in each square mile of the ocean. Over 100,000 marine mammals and millions of seabirds die each year because of this plastic.
According to a report by the Center for Biological Diversity, around 82,000 birds of 102 species were injured or even killed after the Gulf of Mexico’s British Petroleum oil spill. This spill also killed 36 sea mammals, 279 sea turtles and 658 sea birds and many fish as of mid-June 2010.
How Toxic Waste Affects Marine Animals
There are many ways that an oil spill can be harmful to marine life. The oil can get on the feathers and gills of marine animals making it hard for them to feed their children, move or fly. Long-term effects can include reproductive system failure, behavioral changes, cancer, and death.
How the Coral Reefs Cycles are Disrupted
When oil is spilled into the ocean, it sits on the water surface and keeps the sunlight from getting to marine plants affecting the photosynthesis process. Over a long period of time, many things can impact marine life including liver and lung problems, eye irritation and skin irritation.
How Debris Can Deplete the Water Oxygen Content
A great deal of the trash that enters the ocean doesn’t decompose, and ends up staying in the ocean for many years. As it degrades, it uses up oxygen, which leads to the levels of oxygen going down. When this happens, the chances of marine animals like turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks and penguins surviving also go down.
How the Sea Animals Reproductive System Can Fail
There are many different poisonous chemicals in agricultural and industrial waste that can be very hazardous to marine life. Pesticides and the other chemicals in them can build up in the animals fatty tissue which results in their reproductive system failing.
How the Food Chain is Affected
Agriculture and industrial chemicals get washed in rivers and carried to oceans from there. These chemicals sink to the bottom of the sea because they don’t dissolve. From there, smaller animals ingest the chemicals, larger animals eat the smaller animals, and this affects the entire food chain.
How Human Health is Affected
Humans can also be affected since they eat the animals that are part of this now chemical food chain and the toxins from the contaminated animals deposit in the tissues of humans which leads to birth defects, cancer, and long-term health issues.
The growing pollution problem in the oceans is a worldwide concern, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy or clear resolution to this problem. Fortunately, though, the United States government and other governments worldwide have put into place laws and treaties to prohibit the dumping of contaminants and wastes that have a detrimental impact on our planet’s oceans.
The oceans are an instrumental part of the world’s environment, and need to be kept clean and protected to preserve marine and human health. We all need to do our part in keeping our oceans free of debris and this should be a worldwide effort.
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