Chemical pollution: Surfing in toxic waters

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Scientists have issued a stark warning: chemical pollution has officially exceeded the limits safe for humans and the planet. The ocean, which has become a dumping ground for a cocktail of toxic pollutants, is bearing the brunt of this pollution. We take a closer look in this edition of Down to Earth.

What exactly do we know about the risks to us humans from chemical pollution in the ocean? Surprisingly, not a whole lot. Surfrider Foundation Europe, a non-profit advocating for the protection of our seas, is on the hunt for answers.

“Every day we go into the water, so every day we swallow mouthfuls and mouthfuls of seawater,” says Marc Valmassoni, a campaigner for the non-profit based in Biarritz, a world-renowned surfing destination on the French Basque Coast.

“We have solid data on all things bacteriological pollution, but nothing on how chemical pollutants like hydrocarbons, cosmetics or drugs could impact our health in the short, medium or long term.”

Surfing in the name of science

Enter the “Curl” project. Surfers have become guinea pigs in wetsuits, riding the waves in the name of science.

In partnership with the French National Institute for Ocean Science (IFREMER) and a sportswear brand, the NGO designed a special sleeve with several sensors attached, which can be worn around the ankle. The device can take water samples while surfers are in the water.

The samples are then sent to a team of scientists, tasked with identifying the chemicals and measuring toxicity levels.

The project is in the early stages, and scientists are only beginning to comprehend the full extent of the damage caused by chemical pollutants.

From pesticides to drugs and metals, the list of substances that poison our ocean is well documented. Farida Akcha, an eco-toxicologist in charge of analysing the samples, says the challenge is determining if that cocktail of toxic chemicals can interfere with our health.

“Nowadays, we hear a lot about hormone disruptors, possible effects on our immune system, and chemicals which could even cause cancer.”

But the scientist remains cautious.

“It’s important to keep in mind that just because a given substance is present in the water, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be harmful to our health,” she explains. “It depends on the duration of exposure, as well as toxicity levels.”

Cleaning up with algae

With the problem identified, is there a way to clean up the ocean of chemical particles so as to be able to surf and swim in purer water tomorrow?

This is exactly the focus of Planctonid Environnement, a start-up specialised in the cultivation of microalgae. At a factory owned by the Norwegian company Yara in Montoir-de-Bretagne, on France’s Atlantic coast, the production of fertiliser results in significant quantities of industrial effluents being released into the water, especially nitrogen and phosphorus.

Yara decided to call on Planctonid to find a solution. Cultivated near the factory in photobioreactors, the microalgae are fed with waste. They absorb chemicals, thus purifying the water. However, this energy-intensive technology still needs to be improved. Like all plants , algae need a lot of light, and therefore a lot of energy.

>> Read more: Oceans of opportunity: How seaweed can help fight climate change


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