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Seaside Saturdays: The Ocean and Public Health

Welcome back to DC EcoWomen’s Seaside Saturdays blog post series.  This week, we’re taking a close look at just a few of the fascinating links between the ocean and public health.

Did you get your flu shot this year?  If only promoting the health and wellness of our oceans was as easy as being inoculated against the flu virus.  We often forget how strongly public health issues are tied to the environment.  Our mental well-being, for one thing, is always improved after a day at the beach or an afternoon hiking through the forest.  But, the issues run much deeper than that.  From recreational safety to hygienic products and cancer, we rely heavily on the oceans for production of goods and ecosystem services that are essential to maintaining healthy communities and lifestyles.

Health-related concerns stemming from poor water quality include PCBs in fish and wildlife, the spread of infectious diseases, harmful algal blooms, and the interconnectedness of contaminants and immune functioning.  Dr. Gulland, head veterinary doctor at The Marine Mammal Center in California, has dedicated much of her life’s work to studying the impacts of pollutants on seals, sea lions, and whales on the U.S. west coast and around the world.  Recently, her team has been investigating the apparent connection between genetics, pollutants, and an epithelial cancer diagnosed in a staggering 17% of stranded California sea lions.  They have learned that these animals have lower genetic diversity and are exposed to PCB pollutants in utero, meaning pups are born with it already in their tissues.  In addition to cancer and pollutant exposure, these animals are all infected with a type of herpesvirus that is similar to the virus that leads to Kaposi’s sarcoma in humans.

Putting the pieces of this puzzle together, researchers are studying how these genetically predisposed animals whose immune system is compromised by pollutants are being infected by a virus and developing cancer.  Phew, what a diagnosis!  One of the most fascinating, and at the same time terrifying, aspects of this research is how informative it can be for human health.  They are mammals just as we are, living at the interface of water and land, so what affects them can also affect us.  After a strong storm when all of our pollution rushes to the ocean, disoriented animals wash ashore just as avid surfers can contract bacterial infections or stomach viruses.  As we often gaze out across a beautiful ocean, it is important to remember that we cannot see what goes on beneath the surface.  It is difficult to know how close we are to worrisome thresholds that lead to irreversible changes in the future.  Wonder how your local waterways are doing?  Check out Surfrider here in DC to find out what you can do!

Check back next Saturday for more from the Seaside series on public and ocean health…

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