Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Debate with a skeptic Part II

A while back, we posted some comments from Dr. Williscroft, who questioned our claims that the plastic marine debris issue is a significant one, and warrants immediate action.

An interesting addendum to the story: I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Williscroft at a presentation I gave last week to the Los Angeles Adventurers club. To my surprise, he was extremely amiable, and interested in our research, he simply wanted to see quantitative data to illustrate our claims. Fair enough.

The response from Marcus generated further debate on both ends. For those who have followed this lively dialogue, heres part deux:

"I appreciate your reasoned response, but I still see little quantitative information to sink my teeth into. First, while the story of the train wreck is interesting, it misses the point. This was an example of an urgent problem that was NOT being addressed. I suspect you are addressing a no-urgent problem with unwarranted urgency. You state: “…the density of pelagic plastic has doubled since 2005.” This is the kind of statement that is widely used to camouflage fuzzy data. Mind you, I’m NOT saying you are doing this, but this isn’t substantive information. If there was one acre of trash in 2005 and not there is two acres (a doubling), it’s a non problem. If there were twenty thousand acres in 2005, and that has doubled – that strikes me as more noteworthy. But when compared to the vast expanse of the world’s oceans, is even that a “problem” with urgent considerations?"

And now, a response from Marcus:

Dear Robert G. Williscroft, PhD

It seems you misunderstood my point about the urgency to address the plastic marine debris issue. If you “do not see quantitative information to sink your teeth into,” as you state, may I request again that you visit our website for references to the work of our scientists and others. Or browse any university library and scroll through the Marine Pollution Bulletin, or search the index catalog for names like C. Moore, A. Andrady, H. Takada, or R. Thompson. You will find substantial quantitative evidence to document all of our scientific claims. If your sincere interest is a scientific argument, then I strongly suggest you start there. At the end of this response, I have included a list of publications for your review.

From your response, I gather that scientific articles may not be sufficient. To this I have no response. The peer review process in scientific journals is the best available means to share data around the world, other than dragging every scientist into your lab to see physical phenomena with their own eyes. In the peer review process a proposed scientific study is anonymously criticized by other leading scientists in that field. Almost always, the first task is to point out errors in statistical measures or significance. You appear to doubt the statistical significance of our data, therefore, since you live in Southern California, I invite you to visit our lab in Redondo Beach. You will be given a personal tour so that you can see the physical phenomena with your own eyes.

The occurrence of plastic marine debris throughout the North Pacific Ocean is well documented, as are the hundreds of species found with plastic marine debris in or around their bodies. The Algalita Marine Research Foundation has found significant concentrations of DDT, PCBs and PAHs sorbed onto plastic marine debris. Other studies show that the compounds migrate from ingested plastic into the bodies of some organisms. In other research it is well documented that these man-made synthetic chemicals are carcinogenic, endocrine disruptors, and can be attributed to other ailments found in wildlife and humans. There is also wide evidence that man-made synthetic chemicals are bioaccumulating and biomagnifying up the food chain. As I said in my earlier response, the current scientific question is, “Are persistent organic pollutants consumed by marine organisms bioaccumulating up the food chain and into the fisheries that we harvest?”

Admittedly, the causal links from plastic trash in our storm drains, to marine debris, to wildlife contamination and human health concerns, is a difficult chain to connect. Yet, this logical circle is fearfully coming to fruition. Add to this the exponential growth of plastic trash accumulating in the world’s oceans. The plastics industry reported U.S. production of 120 billion pounds of plastic annually, representing a 100% increase in 15 years. This parallels the growth of plastic trash found in the North Pacific Gyre. In 2003 the California Integrated Waste Management Board reported that 25% of plastic produced could not be accounted for through recycling programs, durable goods, or landfills. We are seeing that missing plastic waste accumulating in our oceans. A burgeoning sense of urgency is the meeting of these two roads: our throwaway society, and long-term human health. But, this is not a scientific argument. It is a moral one.

To say that you need to see the effect before you address the cause is unwise considering the global impact of plastic marine debris, especially when all the causal links are illuminating long-term human health concerns. If prosperity, longevity and security of human populations worldwide are tantamount, then employ the precautionary principle.

“There is evidence for adverse health effects in animals, significant human exposure, and safer alternatives are readily available, therefore, until proven otherwise, plastic marine debris and the associated sorbed toxins and pre-production plasticers should be assumed to impact human health. Scientific certainty is not required prior to taking regulatory action.”

If your fear is economics, as you eluded to in your initial reply, then I suggest alternatives to petroleum-based plastics and our throwaway society that are healthy for the environment, our bodies and the marketplace. While much of the developed world embraces a cultural shift to the Sustainable Century, the United States resists departing the Synthetic Century. I would rather see our nation lead rather than lag behind. Markets in alternatives to disposable plastics, like stainless steel water bottles and coffee mugs, and cloth grocery bags, are soaring. To show good faith, when I return to Los Angeles I’ll send you a reusable water bottle. In fact, you can have one of the 100 stainless steel ones we have on JUNK as a souvenir.

Meanwhile, here’s a list of references.

Robards, M. D.; Gould, P. J.; Piatt, J. F. The highest global concentrations and increased abundance of oceanic plastic debris in the North Pacific: Evidence from seabirds. In Marine Debris; Coe, J. M.; Rogers, D. B., Eds.; Springer: Berlin, 1997.
Reddy, M. S.; Basha, S.; Adimurthy, S.; Ramachandraiah, G. Description of the plastics fragments in marine sediments along the Alang-Sosiya ship-breaking yard, India. Estuarine, Coastal Shelf Sci. 2006, 68, 656-660.
Carpenter, E. J.; Anderson, S. J.; Harvey, G. R.; Miklas, H. P.; Peck, B. B. Polystyrene spherules in coastal water. Science (Washington, DC, U.S.) 1972, 178, 749-750.
Ng, K. L.; Obbard, J. P. Prevalence of microplastics in Singapore’s coastal marine environment. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 2006, 52, 761- 767.
Gregory, M. R. Plastic “scrubbers” in hand cleansers: A further (and minor) source for marine pollution identified. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 1996, 32, 867-871.
George, G. A. Weathering of polymers. Mater. Forum 1995, 19, 145-161.
Wurl, O.; Obbard, J. P. A review of pollutants in the sea-surface microlayer (SML): A unique habitat for marine microorganisms. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 2004, 48, 1016-1030.

Thompson, R. C., Teuten, E., Rowland, S. J., Galloway, T. Potential for Plastics to Transport Hydrophobic Contaminants. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2007, 41, 7759-7764.
Rios, L. M.; Moore, C.; Jones, P. R. Persistent organic pollutants carried by synthetic polymers in the ocean environment. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 2007, 54, 1230-1237.
Mato, Y.; Isobe, T.; Takada, H.; Kanehiro, H.; Ohtake, C.; Kaminuma, T. Plastic resin pellets as a transport medium for toxic chemicals in the marine environment. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2001, 35, 308-324.
Ye, S.; Andrady, A. L. Fouling of floating plastic debris under Biscayne Bay exposure conditions. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 1991, 22, 608-613.
Brunauer, S.; Emmett, P. H.; Teller, E. Adsorption of gases in multimolecular layers. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1938, 60, 309-319.
Hardy, J. T.; Crecelius, E. A.; Antrim, L. D.; Keiesser, S. L.; Broadhurst, V. L.; Boehm, P. D.; Steinhauer, W. G.; Coogan, T. H. Aquatic surface microlayer contamination in Chesapeake Bay. Mar. Chem. 1990, 28, 333-351.
Pascall, M. A.; Zabik, M. A.; Zabik, M. J.; Hernandez, R. J. Uptake of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from an aqueous medium by polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, and polystyrene films. J. Agric. Food Chem. 2005, 53, 164-169.

Derraik, J. G. B. The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: A review. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 2002, 44, 842-852.
Laist, D. W. Impacts of marine debris: Entanglement of marine life in debris including a comprehensive list of species with entanglement and ingestion records. In Marine Debris; Coe, J. M.; Rogers, D. B., Eds.; Springer: Berlin, 1997.
Fry, D. M.; Fefer, S. I.; Sileo, L. Ingestion of plastic by laysan albatrosses and wedge-tailed shearwaters in the Hawaiian Islands. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 1987, 18, 339-343.
Eriksson, C.; Burton, H. Origins and biological accumulation of small plastic particles in fur seals from Macquire Island. Ambio 2003 32, 380-384.

Ryan, P. G.; Connell, A. D.; Gardener, B. D. Plastic ingestion and PCBs in seabirds: Is there a relationship? Mar. Pollut. Bull. 1988, 19, 174-176.
Thompson, R. C.; Olsen, Y.; Mitchell, R. P.; Davis, A.; Rowland, S. J.; John, A. W. G.; McGonigle, D.; Russell, A. Lost at sea: Where is all the plastic? Science (Washington, DC, U.S.) 2004, 304, 838.
Voparil, I. M.; Mayer, L. A. Dissolution of sedimentary polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons into the lugworm’s (Arenicola marina) digestive fluids. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2000, 34, 1221-1228.
Voparil, I. M.; Mayer, L. A. Commercially available chemicals that mimic a deposit feeder’s (Arenicola marina) digestive solubilization of lipids. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2004, 38, 4334- 4339.
Lu, X.; Reible, D. D.; Fleeger, J. W. Relative importance of ingested sediment versus pore water as uptake routes for PAHs to the deposit-feeding oligochaete Ilyodrilus templetoni. Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 2004, 47, 207-214.
Weston, D. P.; Penry, D. L.; Gulmann, L. K. The role of ingestion as a route of contaminant bioaccumulation in a deposit-feeding polychaete. Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 2000, 38, 446- 454.
Timmermann, K.; Anderson, O. Bioavailability of pyrene to the deposit-feeding polychaete Arenicola marina: Importance of sediment versus water uptake routes. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 2003, 246, 163-172.
Lamoureux, E. M.; Brownawell, B. J. Chemical and biological availability of sediment-sorbed hydrophobic organic contaminants. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 1999, 18, 1733-1741.

Finally, a response from Tamara Adkins, Doctoral Candidate from Antioch University:

I appreciate the attention Dr. Robert G. Williscroft has given to the voyage of the Junk. I was curious to know more about him, and scanned his resume and list of publications online. His impressive credentials include supervising the National Science Foundation Atmospheric Research Program at the South Pole, Given his expertise, I would expect an evidence-based rebuttal to the messages to which Dr Eriksen is bringing our attnetion. If he is aware of studies that would lead to us believe that plastic debris is not increasing in the ocean, or that it is not a threat to wildlife, I would be interested in seeing it.

As an endocrine disruption researcher, the weight of evidence certainly supports the toxicity of even very low doses of many of the monomers and additives found in common plastics (such as phthalates, bisphenol-A, styrene, vinyl chloride, organotin, lead, etc.). Adding these contaminants to the marine food chain does not seem wise. However, I subscribe to the precautionary principle -- the idea that if the risk of catastrophic harm is highly likely but not proven, it would make sense to delay action until further research results are compiled. (This, of course, assumes that not taking action is an option, and that it does not carry its own risks). I suspect, based on the reviews, of Dr Williscroft's book "Chicken Little,", that he does not subscribe to the precautionary principle. In his book, he "debunks" global warming and the hole in the ozone layer, as well as addressing unfounded fears about "terrorists, illegal immigrants, the Bird Flu, fuel dependency, food toxicity, antibiotic resistant bacteria". Mixing politics with science is familiar territory for Dr. Williscroft.


Great Gifts said...

A wonderful idea and for a great cause. Plastics in our oceans are destroying them and it's wildlife. I wish you all the best luck.

Ashley Kay said...

Good cause guys, keep up the good work!

Ashley Kay

Anonymous said...

Nice reponse anna,
I am impressed.
Lets see what the "doc" has to say now. I think it will be hard to win him over, even if he is affable.
Keep up the good work.

Mr. Nissan said...

nice blog

Anderson Eduardo said...

Bom dia, olha adorei seu blog, muito interresante.. abra├žos e boa sorte


Tony said...

Hi there, randomly came across your blog. Great work I think it's terrible all the plastic waste in the rivers lakes & oceans & the effects it has on the innocent creatures it harms. Good luck on your voyage. I was in the Navy 12 years but dunno if I'd be keen on going to sea on a plastic raft come large rough seas...
Greetings from Tasmania

Shakespere said...

Oh wow. This is so interesting. I enjoyed your blog.

Artfulife said...

I just read an interesting article in the July issue of Discover magazine. The article was entitled "How the Pacific Ocean became the world's largest dump" by Thomas M. Kostigen. There is an actual mass (I never knew about until I read this article) that floats within the Northern Pacific Gyre, they have actually named it "The Eastern Garbage Patch". The article goes on to explain how the actual sprawl of this garbage patch may well cover an area as much as one and a half times the size of the United States, with a possible depth of 100 feet if not more. The article is highly informative so very interesting. I am curious, is your team linked to this article? Hope I haven't repeated what has already been posted, but I am new to your blog. Good luck to you and all you do for such a great cause.

Mariah Byron Edgington said...

Good luck & safe travels.

Bhany888 said...

nice advocacy, may you continue to save the world.

I am hoping that some time in the future you will able to reach us here in the Philippines and inspire us. I myself will be one with you. I do believe in your advocacy.

visit my blog


bouncertone said...

The Doctor probably wanted to get facts before he put his name out there to support your campaign.He was also on another blog talking about it.

Oberon said...

......"disposable" plastic.....is garbage that lasts forever.

One by need said...

Hi I'm not sure if you are interested in new forms of energy for gas conservation and saving the environment, but looking at your site I thought you might...so if you are check out my blog. Hope you have a great day..


BrennanMoy said...

This is awesome guys! get to the gyre! Good luck!

- Tim Brennan


StudlyBudly said...

I just discovered this blog, and let me say that it is incredible what are you doing.

Ritch in Love said...

Watched a report about your journey on the news. Stay safe!

Im'perfect said...

Wow... interesting. You are sailing to Hawai`i? I recently moved out here. Maybe this will catch news attention :o)


br!ttanyk!ck said...

this is insane.
I admire you taking action for what you believe in.
the world needs more people like this

tiffany said...

this is incredible - i feel more aware.

REZA said...


Brett said...

A wonderful idea. Great work keep it up and come back safely

Pari Perenti said...

you are so right, good on ya! we all need to think about how much planet we have left to go around!

Pari Perenti said...

you are so right, good on ya! we all need to think about how much planet we have left to go around!

trebosc said...

Good idea !

Lynn said...

Humans have been dumping junk in the oceans for thousands of years...before plastic was invented...everyone is concerned about the issue...some more militant than others...the point is the earth is our home...why are we arguing about it ? After all, where else can we go to live but HERE ?