Easy enough to read about pollution like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, spend a moment bewailing the foul state of our planet as a result of human carelessness, and then throw away that plastic grocery bag without even thinking that it, too, might end up in the ocean.
The truth is, most people have noble intentions. It’s the hurry-up pace of modern life that leads them to make careless mistakes that lead to environmental degradation, and nowhere is this more apparent than at Kamilo Beach on the Big Island in Hawaii.
Here, along a stretch of formerly pristine white sand 1,500 feet long, another layer of white pebbles – each about a millimeter in diameter, and extending more than foot down into the real sand, support a layer of debris unrivaled the world over in its diversity and toxicity.
They call this plastic sand “mermaid’s tears”. The truth is far more ugly. Kamilo Beach, once a paradise, stands like a warning of how our hurly-burly inattentiveness is destroying the very best of the natural world – a world that it may not be possible to reclaim if we should ever have the time, the resources, and – most of all – the desire.
Take, for example, Bisphenol A, or BPA, a plastic compound found in water and beverage bottles. This BPA doesn’t deteriorate and disappear, but breaks down gradually into finer and finer particles, which during their decomposition release serious toxins. Scientists now know that these toxins are responsible for reproductive failures, not only in shellfish and crustaceans at the bottom of the marine seafood chain, but in larger mammals like seals and whales and, finally, in humans.
The world produces six billion pounds of bisphenol A per year, and a good portion of that makes its way either into landfills or into lakes, rivers and oceans. On land, children appear to be most at risk, their growing bodies (which metabolize everything much faster than adult bodies) taking on more pollution per pound of body weight from birth than any adult living.
BPA levels in humans are already far above levels considered safe – that is, levels at which adverse health effects typically occur in laboratory animals. This level, up to 9 parts per billion, is now being implicated in earlier menarche in girls (physical maturation, in some cases as early as seven), and increasing sterility and sexual deformation in boys, as well as reduced sperm counts in men of all ages.
Other BPA effects (in laboratory experiments) include behavioral changes like hyperactivity (ADD, ADHD), increased fight/flight and startle reflexes, impaired ability to learn and remember, reduced ability to display maternal behavior, reversed sex differentiation in brain chemistry but decreased physical sexual differentiation, and even a tendency to addiction.
Effects are also seen at both the animal and human level in reduced immune function, increased rates of obesity and diabetes, and incidence of Down Syndrome.
Another breakdown chemical from plastic is styrene trimer, or Styrofoam, a supposedly nonbiodegradable substance. Though some researchers are convinced that Styrofoam’s denser nature means it sinks to the bottom of oceans before it can decompose – where the intense cold prevents decomposition permanently – others have demonstrated, in laboratory settings, that its decomposition creates harmful liquid and gaseous byproducts, some of which are known cancer-causing agents.
Fortunately, in January of 2010, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, partnered with several other concerned entities to create a sweeping, long-term plan to clean up Kamilo and other Hawaiian beaches.
Called the NOAA Marine Debris Program, the agency worked side-by-side with locals to develop an even more comprehensive approach at both the state and community level. Together, the two groups are working to reduce marine debris, including fishing gear and fishing waste disposal at sea, debris that eventually accumulates in inland waterways, and even the number of derelict or abandoned seagoing vessels.
Of course, Hawaiians have been working toward these ends for years, but this joint effort – back by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to achieve economies of scale not previously possible.
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