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Protecting Our Oceans Starts With Testing – Part One

A seaside town with a beach and sea in the foreground.
Credit: TimHill / Pixabay.
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For many years, we have known that our coastal and deep ocean environments are suffering from an increasing number of pollutants. This alarming cocktail of chemicals is affecting the health of marine ecosystems. Compounds found in common products, such as sunscreen agents that contain oxybenzone (benzophenone-3) and octinoxate (ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate), pose significant threats to coral reefs and other marine organisms. They can accumulate in the tissues of fish, shellfish and other marine life, potentially jeopardizing their health and reproductive abilities.

These harmful contaminants can also stem from wastewater treatment plants, storm water overflows and shipping ballast waters. Therefore, there is a pressing need for analytical testing to assess the levels of these chemicals in marine waters.

The analytical testing of our oceans is paramount for several reasons. It can check for the presence and concentrations of a range of pollutants, helping to protect human health and biodiversity. The resulting data can also help to ensure compliance and give insights into climate change. However, we don't currently have a good sense of what is going on in terms of pollution from either emerging contaminants or legacy chemicals, such as organic hydrocarbons, pesticides and pharmaceuticals.

The role of legislative action

Regulators are already starting to address the problem. For example, the European Union’s (EU’s) Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) aims to protect the marine environment. It requires the application of an ecosystem-based approach to the management of activities impacting marine environments, enabling a sustainable use of marine goods and services. Meanwhile, the EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD) focuses on reducing/removing pollution and on ensuring that there is sufficient water to support wildlife and human needs.

For this type of legislation to deliver the best possible outcomes it requires accurate information; data that can drive how we manage wastewater treatment and urban runoff, as well as the infrastructure surrounding their operation. What analytical testing currently doesn't tell us is the biological effects. Therefore, there’s a growing call to link the analytical data with the effects that we are seeing in the marine environment.

While the marine environment is not generally used as a drinking water source, many European countries, where the climate is having an impact on water supply, are starting to look at desalinization as an option that will likely become more popular in the context of climate change in the future. When this happens, we will need rigorous analytical testing to ensure the minimum possible impact on human health. However, not all communities are capable of monitoring sea water, which is something that needs to be addressed through regulation.

Addressing emerging chemicals in marine testing

With the marine environment we have principally been looking for legacy chemicals. However, more recently, we have been looking at emerging contaminants, including from personal care products, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. The concern is that they are not being properly treated in wastewater plants and are therefore entering marine water.

One of the latest concerns focuses around per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS). We are working with Agilent and the Irish Marine Institute to understand where these compounds are coming from and how they are entering the ocean. Often referred to as ”forever chemicals” that can be linked to cancer amongst other diseases, we need to be measuring them and understanding the route of the contamination.

Moreover, antibiotics commonly used in human and veterinary medicine, as well as in aquaculture and agriculture, have also been detected. These compounds, which can enter the oceans through various pathways, including wastewater discharges, runoff from agricultural fields and aquaculture operations, can have serious consequences. They can disrupt natural microbial communities, which can damage the overall health and resilience of marine ecosystems. Moreover, they can contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, posing a grave risk to both human and animal health.

From a marine perspective, the primary productivity is driven by phytoplankton, which are then passed up the food chain through fish into higher mammals and sea birds. This bioaccumulation can be very serious. For example, mercury and other organic compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls and pesticides easily accumulate when consumed by fish, such as tuna, and if they are themselves consumed it can impact human health, which is concerning for communities who rely completely on food from the sea.

Routine marine testing covers gases, pH and salinity. However, there are currently no off-the-shelf technologies available to measure emerging chemicals. As a result, we revert to collecting spot samples at specific geographical locations and analyzing them in the lab using chromatographic techniques with pre-treatment steps.

When working with spot samples collected from larger geographical areas, the goal is to identify various chemical groups, to identify the emerging chemicals. However, the lack of universal standards for all the requirements can be a limitation. Fortunately, advancements in separation science, and specifically in mass spectrometry technology to improve the sensitivity, have made it much more feasible to achieve this goal.

With so many different chemicals to screen for, the volume of data that can be extracted from a sample can be overwhelming. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes into play. Computer scientists don't care what the data is nor what those numbers mean. What they want is a large volume of data for their machine learning algorithms to analyze to help identify harmful elements.

For example, if you have 1 sample and you have 90,000 compounds, you could screen all of them to identify the key 200 priority chemicals. Non-targeted screening is very powerful in this case, as it has an important role to play in understanding the emergence of new chemicals.

Charting a more sustainable marine life

Safeguarding the health of our oceans needs consolidated efforts towards testing and analysis. The increasing presence of pollutants, both legacy and emerging, poses significant threats to marine ecosystems and human health. Analytical testing serves as the cornerstone in identifying and quantifying these contaminants, offering valuable insights for regulatory action and management strategies. By prioritizing rigorous testing protocols and leveraging AI, we can pave the way towards a more sustainable future for our oceans and the myriad life forms they support.

About the author

Fiona Regan PhD, professor in Chemistry, School of Chemical Sciences, Dublin City University (DCU) and director of DCU Water Institute

Fiona Regan is professor in Chemistry at Dublin City University (DCU) and director of the DCU Water Institute. Fiona studied environmental science and technology and later completed a PhD in analytical chemistry in 1994. Following postdoctoral research in optical sensing in DCU, in 1996 she took up a lecturing position at Limerick Institute of Technology. In 2002 Fiona joined the School of Chemical Sciences as a lecturer in analytical chemistry, in 2008 she became senior lecturer and in 2009 became the Beaufort Principal Investigator in Marine and Environmental Sensing.

Fiona’s research focuses on environmental monitoring, and she has special interest in priority and emerging contaminants as well as the establishment of decision support tools for environmental monitoring using novel technologies and data management tools. Her work includes the areas of separations and sensors (including microfluidics), materials for sensing and antifouling applications on aquatic deployed systems.