If I offered you something to eat and told you it could disrupt your metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep and mood, would you thankfully accept, enjoy and share with your kids? I think most of us would say we would rather not poison our bodies like that, if we were told in such a way. However, we may be eating chemicals daily that have just such properties. We also cause them to enter the oceans, where they enter the food chain of animals more susceptible to these health problems.
There is a group of chemicals called phthalates (think the “ph” quiet, then you can speak the rest). Phthalates are used in many plastic products to make them pliable and prevent breakage. Water bottles and beverage bottles, clingwrap and other food plastic coverings, toys and many other things we use and touch every day contain phthalates. You can read much about the health effects of phthalates online; some articles are more scientific, others a lot more sensationalistic, and I am not expert enough to assess the true extent of this problem to human health.
I have been working with some students and been in contact with a young researcher from the University of Alaska Anchorage who studies phthalates in seabirds. The birds, even those that spend their lives far offshore and away from direct contact with people and their landfills, have phthalates in their bodies.
There are two ways the birds could be exposed to these chemicals: by simply touching plastic floating in the water and by ingestion of plastic pieces. As I have mentioned before in earlier articles, certain seabirds mistake pieces of plastic for food and eat them. The most fame for dying from eating plastic goes to the Midway atoll albatrosses. However, phthalates don’t kill birds by mechanical means, they disrupt their endocrine system. If you google it, you find out that the endocrine system is a collection of glands that produce hormones to regulate the metabolism (breakdown of food into energy), growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, mood and other things. Phthalates are known to affect the endocrine system.
If you would like to find out more about plastic in the marine environment, its effects and what we can do about it, please mark your calendar for 6:30 p.m. Feb. 19. At Kodiak College in Room 106 the Kodiak High School Tsunami Bowl team will give a presentation about their research on how marine debris affects coastal communities. The students have worked on this topic throughout the school year and are now preparing to present at the statewide Marine Science Tsunami Bowl competition in Seward at the end of February.
Before taking off, they want to give the Kodiak community a chance to see what they did and thank all those who helped and supported their research along the way. After the team presentation, Veronica Padula from the University of Alaska Anchorage will present her research on phthalates in seabirds and lead a discussion. This should be a great opportunity to ask your questions and learn more about the place of sea birds in the ocean food web. Hope to see you there on Friday night!
If the evening puts you in the mood to become actively involved, Veronica suggested meeting for a marine debris cleanup on Saturday, Feb. 20. We will meet at Buskin Beach at the end of the road parking lot at 10:30 a.m. and clean the beach below the Buskin Beach House. It is not a low tide, but most marine debris collects on the high tide line, so that we should have plenty of work. Bring warm clothes, boots and gloves, spend the morning on the beach and become an active ocean steward.