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Oceans and Human Health

25 August 2011, 5:47 pm

sea turtle

Oceans and Human Health

  • Our Blue Planet. Our oceans and coasts affect us all—even those of us who don't live near the shoreline. Consider the economy. Through the fishing and boating industry, tourism and recreation, and ocean transport, one out of six jobs in the U.S. is marine-related. Coastal and marine waters support over 28 million jobs. U.S. consumers spend over $55 billion for fishery products annually. Then there's travel and tourism. Our beaches are a top destination, attracting about 90 million people a year. Our coastal areas generate 85 percent of all U.S. tourism revenues. And let's not forget about the Great Lakes—these vast bodies of water supply more than 40 million people with drinking water. Our oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes serve other critical needs, too—needs that are harder to measure, but no less important—such as shoreline protection, climate regulation, nutrient recycling, and maritime heritage. Last but not least, healthy oceans and coasts provide us with resources we rely on every day, ranging from food to medicines to compounds that make our peanut butter easier to spread! So what does all of this have to do with human health?

  • Ocean in Distress.When we think of public health risks, we may not think of the ocean as a factor. But increasingly, the health of the ocean is intimately tied to our health. One sign of an ocean in distress is an increase in beach or shellfish harvesting closures across the U.S. Intensive use of our oceans and runoff from land-based pollution sources are just two of many factors that stress our fragile ecosystems—and increasingly lead to human health concerns. Waterborne infectious diseases, harmful algal bloom toxins, contaminated seafood, and chemical pollutants are other signals that, just as we can threaten the health of our oceans, our oceans can also threaten our health. And it is not just public health that is threatened; our coastal economies could also be at significant risk. So what are we doing about it?

  • NOAA's Oceans and Human Health Initiative. NOAA's Oceans and Human Health Initiative (OHHI) is a national research program focused on improving understanding and management of the ocean, coasts and Great Lakes to enhance benefits to human health and reduce public health risks. The OHHI is comprised of NOAA 'Centers of Excellence for OHH' located in Washington, South Carolina, and Michigan, coupled with strong interdisciplinary partnerships through OHHI-funded external grants, distinguished scholars, and consortia for graduate training. Scientists at these institutions use cutting-edge technology to explore the relationships between environmental stressors, coastal conditions, and our health. Through sustainable research, these scientists are finding ways to maximize health benefits from the ocean, improve the safety of seafood and drinking waters, reduce beach closures, and detect emerging health threats.

  • Closing the Safety Gap. Throughout the U.S., there are thousands of beach and shellfish closures or advisories each year due to the presence of harmful marine organisms, chemical pollutants, or algal toxins. To address public health threats and benefits from the sea, NOAA scientists and partners are developing and delivering useful tools, technologies, and environmental information to public health and natural resource managers, decision-makers, and the public. These products and services include predictions for harmful algal blooms and harmful microbes to reduce exposure to contaminated seafood; and early warning systems for contaminated beaches and drinking water sources to protect and prevent human illness.

  • Emerging Health Threats. Whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals eat much of the same seafood that we consume and swim in shared coastal waters. Unlike us, however, they are exposed to potential ocean health threats such as toxic algae or poor water quality 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These mammals, and other sentinel species can shed important light on how the condition of ocean environments may affect human health now and in the future. As the principal stewardship agency responsible for protecting marine mammals in the wild, NOAA's Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program supports a network of national and international projects aimed at investigating health concerns. One projects is an assessment of the health conditions of dolphins in coastal waters in areas where contaminants may be of concern. These assessments involve a veterinary examination, medical sampling, and attachment of radio transmitters that track dolphin movements and help determine contaminant sources. This research can not only warn us about potential public health risks and lead to improved management of the protected species, but may also lead to new medical discoveries.

  • Cures from the Deep. Keeping our oceans healthy is about more than protecting human health—it's also about finding new ways to save lives. The diversity of species found in our oceans offer great promise for a treasure chest of pharmaceuticals and natural products to combat illnesses and improve our quality of life. Many new marine-based drugs have already been discovered that treat some types of cancer, antibiotic resistant staph infections, pain, asthma and inflammation. For example, NOAA and U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers recently found that a fish-killing toxin has the potential to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells, even at very low concentrations. Preliminary studies have demonstrated the toxin to be highly effective against renal cancer, one of the most challenging cancers to treat. NOAA and its partners are involved in many studies like this to seek out potential new benefits to make us healthier.

Original article: Oceans and Human Health