Scientists have discovered “extraordinary” levels of toxic pollution in the most remote and inaccessible place on the planet – the 10 km deep Mariana trench in the Pacific Ocean.
Small crustaceans that live in the pitch-black waters of the trench, captured by a robotic submarine, were contaminated with 50 times more toxic chemicals than crabs that survive in heavily polluted rivers in China.
“We still think of the deep ocean as being this remote and pristine realm, safe from human impact, but our research shows that, sadly, this could not be further from the truth,” said Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University in the UK, who led the research.
“The fact that we found such extraordinary levels of these pollutants really brings home the long-term, devastating impact that mankind is having on the planet,” he said.
Jamieson’s team identified two key types of severely toxic industrial chemicals that were banned in the late 1970s, but do not break down in the environment, known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These chemicals have previously been found at high levels in Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic and in killer whales and dolphins in western Europe.
The research, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggests that the POPs infiltrate the deepest parts of the oceans as dead animals and particles of plastic fall downwards. POPs accumulate in fat and are therefore concentrated in creatures up the food chain. They are also water-repellent and so stick to plastic waste.
“The very bottom of the deep trenches like the Mariana are inhabited by incredibly efficient scavenging animals, like the 2cm-long amphipods we sampled, so any little bit of organic material that falls down, these guys turn up in huge numbers and devour it,” said Jamieson.
He said it was not unexpected that some POPs would be found in the deepest parts of the oceans: “When it gets down into the trenches, there is nowhere else for it to go. The surprise was just how high the levels were – the contamination in the animals was sky high.”
The level of one type of POP, called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), was only equalled anywhere in the northwest Pacific in Suruga Bay in Japan, an infamous pollution blackspot. The researchers also found severe contamination in amphipods collected in the Kermadec trench, which is 7,000km from the Mariana trench. The pollution was ubiquitous, found “in all samples across all species at all depths in both trenches”, the scientists said.
PCBs were manufactured from the 1930s to the 1970s, when their appalling impact on people and wildlife was realised. About a third of the 1.3m tonnes produced has already leaked into coastal sediments and the open oceans, with a steady stream still thought to be coming from poorly protected landfill sites.
Heavy investment is needed to tackle this growing problem; leading to infrastructure reforms within industry and city based cultures. Scientists are developing robotics to try and tackle the damage related to persistent organic pollutants but will the G20 live up to expectations following the ‘Paris agreement’ deliver the green light.