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June 12, 2008

Squids and octopods beware: Contaminants now in your world

Posted: 09:22 AM ET

Fire retardants in deep sea squids?

Marine scientists now have evidence that a whole range of chemical contaminants have found their way to the deepest and most remote parts of the ocean.

The cockatoo squid is one species impacted by contamination. It’s found in deep waters off New England. Photo by Michael Vecchione, NOAA

"Most people think the deep sea is so far away that humans don't affect it," said Michael Vecchione, a cephalopod biologist at NOAA Fisheries' National Systematics Laboratory.

Cephalopods include octopods, squids, cuttlefishes and nautiluses. The toxic chemicals that Vecchione and colleagues from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science found are a rogues gallery of scary initials: PCBs, TBTs, BDEs, and DDT* among them. Scientists classify all of them as POPs, or persistent organic pollutants. It means they don't break down, and stay in the environment... pretty much forever.

It's not yet clear what level of these chemicals could harm or kill these deep sea creatures.

"Some of them had surprisingly high levels," said Vecchione. And because these marine animals are, ok, odd in their physical structure, Vecchione said they simply don't have the ability to get rid of the chemicals once they are inside their bodies.

One reason for the study was to find out more about how these contaminants go up and down the food chain. Deep sea squids and octopods are the main food source for some of the most iconic marine mammals: beaked, sperm, killer, and beluga whales; narwhals, dolphins and porpoises. Other marine scientists have found these POP chemicals in the blubber and tissue of both whales and fish.

From the NOAA ship Delaware II the researchers used nets to collect animals from depths of 3,300-6,600 feet. The researchers analyzed 22 specimens collected in an area of the Atlantic Ocean called Bear Sea Mount, off the coast of New England.

"Contamination of the deep sea food web is happening, and it is a real concern," said Vecchione.

Vecchione has also conducted Arctic and Antarctic marine biology research.

So how did he get into the octopus and squid world?

"They're weird. The environment is alien. It is so different from what we are used to, I find it personally fascinating," said Vecchione. His study will be published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

*You knew there was going to be a test:
PCB: polychlorinated biphenyl, compounds used to insulate electrical transformers, also used in paints and adhesives. PCB production was banned in the U.S. in the 1970s.
TBT: tributyltin, a compound used as a paint on boat hulls to stop marine creatures from clinging to them. Regulated since late 1980s, extremely toxic to sea life.
BDE: brominated diphenyl ethers, used as flame retardants in plastics, furniture and electronics. Still debate about health concerns; banned in some states and the European Union.
DDT: dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, a pesticide banned in the U.S. in the 1970s, still used in some countries to control malaria.

Marsha Walton, CNN science and technology producer

Filed under: Animals • environment

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Larian LeQuella   June 12th, 2008 9:50 am ET

Not a serious comment: Is it just me, or does that picture remind you of every politician and lawyer you've ever seen? 🙂

Yoda Loo   June 12th, 2008 10:09 am ET

This is a story about the iphone?

Cochituate Kid   June 12th, 2008 11:02 am ET

Reminds me of Glenn Beck- it's the large uncaring eyes

Robert Wasmer   June 12th, 2008 11:39 am ET

More to the point of the article, as a biologist who works on the taxonomy of deep oceanic crustaceans, this helps answer a question I have been thinking about since it was asked by one of the students in my high school marine biology course this semester.

James Tilley   June 12th, 2008 4:26 pm ET

Wow. And to think. This all started back before we were even aware it would have long-term effects. Back in the 80's, 70's, and before. Now we will have to deal with it for forever, or until we can filter out the entire ocean(never). That is a shame, and I wish that we would've been more caring about our environment. I am only 20 years old. I have a long life ahead of me, and it troubles me to know that neither me nor my close ones will be able to eat food from the seas for much longer, for much longer, without there being a serious health hazard or side-effect. It's just a shame on humanity. Hopefully we will be able to follow this up, and find some sort of way to counteract the agents... maybe then we will be able to decontaminate the area(s).

The Counter-Offensive Has Begun | Popehat   June 12th, 2008 4:36 pm ET

[...] face from the tentacled denizens of the watery deep. Our species has not been idle. Hopefully our nefarious plans won't [...]

Faye   June 12th, 2008 4:43 pm ET

This is not surprising news – disgusting but not surprising. It just proves that there is no corner of our earth that is remote enough to be safe from the "intelligent" species – humans.
In our blind, selfish, arrogance that we are the superior species and entitled to take what we want, annihilate any other species we want – in any number of barbaric disgusting ways -, use until we use up everything, we are slowly but surely destroying our world.
We humans have no concept or consciousness of how small we really are in the grand scheme of things, but there are so many of us that even seemingly innocuous activities have a huge, lasting, vastly destructive impact.
Some day there will be nothing left and our planet will be as barren as so many we see out there in the universe. We will have noone to blame but ourselves!

Lauren   June 12th, 2008 7:05 pm ET

It would help to have a little more information to put this in perspective. What amounts are we talking about here? All kinds of man-made and natural chemicals persist in the environment and end up in the food chain of every kind of organism, but they are harmless especially if measured in a few parts per billion or even a few parts per million. Probably nothing to be worried about, but the article doesn't specify how much is accumulating in the cephalopods measured. Why did the author neglect to provide useful data and instead punctuate the article with alarming phrases like "It’s not yet clear what level of these chemicals could harm or kill these deep sea creatures?"

Bio Nerd   June 12th, 2008 7:43 pm ET

I am also a teacher of biology and environmental science. I intend on sharing this with my students as I feel it is of great concern.

JHS   June 12th, 2008 7:48 pm ET

Obviously all chemicals need to be evaluated using a cost benefit ratio, but since DDT was banned in 1972 how many millions of children have died due to malaria?

S Callahan   June 12th, 2008 8:23 pm ET

Glad you're bringing this to the forefront...point's there and based on the food chain..we and our children, children's children, etc will be eating the same chemicals.....important stuff.......
I kinda like the 'pos...his/her eyes almost look mechinical.....

Craig Nazor   June 12th, 2008 11:38 pm ET

Imagine what the octopus would think of us, if he only knew what we were doing to him and all his kin? Humans should be considered the most feared of all the earth's creatures by any measure. Think about that the next time you look in a mirror.

Pinkbike   June 13th, 2008 5:51 am ET

Joke all you want, but it's clear – we're doomed.

Long live the cephalopods!

Larian LeQuella   June 13th, 2008 9:35 am ET

S Callahan, I think that's a very good point. These chemicals are distributed throughout the world, and find their way into ecosystems we had no idea they would get into. While we may not be directly eating a lot of Cephalopods (although I like calamari), it should make people pause and think for a moment.

If our actions have THESE unintended effects, what else are we doing that could harm us much more directly?

Terry Deady   June 13th, 2008 9:41 am ET

What about all the ships sunk in WWII there in the North Atlantic, I'm sure they had asbestos, generators, paint, etc. That could be the source of some of the pollutants. It's sad that humans use the ocean for a dumping ground. I am a diver, and practically see the hand of God when I see all the myriad wonderful creatures down there. I hope that mankind will develop a better apprectiation of this fragile cradle of life. I would like to see all that plastic in the Pacific trawled out of there too. peace.

Kayt   June 13th, 2008 11:01 am ET

I'm 14 years old and was in my high school's debate program this year. Our topic was Sub-Saharan Africa. One of the main concerns we debated over was the harmful effects of DDT. DDT is being used in SSA as a mosquito repellent, and this chemical can be very toxic to animals and humans alike. When it gets into the oceans it causes even more damage because these sea creatures are more fragile and the toxin can break them down a lot easier. This is a serious problem and we can't reverse the damage we've already done. These chemicals stay in the water forever. We need to start fixing this problem now so we don't cause any more harm to our oceans than we already have.

Zoomie   June 13th, 2008 11:12 am ET

Its impossible to see what goes on in this world outside our sight. I would not put it past other nations (or even our own) to dump chemicals in the deepest parts of the ocean to emilinate cost of getting rid of them the safe and environmentally friendly way.

KC   June 13th, 2008 12:32 pm ET

The deep sea is not discovered... the human species knows little about the oceans (nearly 80% of world).

The sea doesn't need our saving. The earth doesn't need out saving. Do what you need to do. Don't be reckless. It doesn't matter if another million species go extend. Millions have. Millions more will. Man will eventually be one.

Everything can hurt. Everything can help. Typical alarmist environmentalist. Ashamed of being human. Typically ashamed of be American.

Get the hell out of the way so business and entreprenuers can make things happen.

Aussie Jane   June 13th, 2008 1:26 pm ET

Does this mean I shouldn't eat sushi anymore? Darn, I love sushi. I'm gettting hungry for some right now.

starzzguitar   June 13th, 2008 3:29 pm ET

I think that if you looked, you would find that we humans are just chock full of contaminates, preservatives, drugs, toxins, radioactive trace metals, minerals and all kinds of "scary stuff". And basically, we are fine. So these creatures will also be fine, as I'm sure these chemicals found in the deep sea creatures are measured in "parts per billion". So everybody relax. Oh, and all you little school kids who are being scared by the school system and your teachers that want to fill you with fear...well, the smart ones already know to do your own research and not believe everything you read, see or hear. Don't be a follow the leader mindless sheep...or lemming. Uh...look it up.

David   June 13th, 2008 3:41 pm ET

i agree with KC to a degree. No matter what we do to the earth it will not stop life. Maybe life as we define it will be different, but life will go on. Even if we launched 1000 nucleur missiles, pumped every factory, and drove are SUV's life will still persist. The earth would recover as long as we stayed in the narrow band around the sun that creates the conditions for "LIFE."

Maybe more people would pay attention if instead of saying "Save the Earth and Whales!" we said, "Save your own self!!!" With the selfishness of today's world this would garner more attention and action from people; not to mention in reality, that is exactly what saving the Earth (or ourselves) is. Self preservation appeals to all living beings consciousness.

Larian LeQuella   June 13th, 2008 3:49 pm ET

@starzzguitar, I think the bigger point of the post is that the stuff we throw around is getting to these incredibly remote ecosystems. Considering that humans practically wallow in our own filth, I wouldn't be surprised if we're all EPA condemned zones. But to think that our actions on 1/3 of the surface has such an effect on the remaining 2/3 of the surface, down to depths that we didn't even think contained life. THAT should give you pause. Sure, we're fine TODAY, but what about tomorrow? The shortsightedness of your comment is more frightening than what these studies actually found.

s callahan   June 13th, 2008 5:30 pm ET

Nice point David.."Save your own our planet" 🙂

dianehawk   June 13th, 2008 6:39 pm ET

Reminder from the moderators: please avoid personal attacks and name-calling. If your post is missing, you're probably an offender.

Franko   June 14th, 2008 1:46 am ET

Mother Earth is an obsessive compulsive cleaner. Rain washes away, the rivers carry it out to sea, and the octopi get free chemicals. The steroids from Professional Sports, concentrated, in unexpected places. All they can tolerate smorgasbord for the deep sea creatures.

katie   June 14th, 2008 1:58 am ET

it's scary,acctually.
it's not suprising either because this world is experiencing so much.
i hope we can do something about it.

stephen   June 14th, 2008 10:28 am ET

As it is ....I am ashamed of what we have done to ourselves in a short period of time. The ocean is so vast that it's hard to comprehend how we have contaminated it to this depth and treated life that is so beautiful and alien to us in such a way. Every day I hear or read about some new contaminant being discovered and how the environment and wild life is affected. The only cure is for us (humans) to stop sticking your heads in the sand and start thinking about what we can do to fix the problems and prevent further issues. This does not have to keep us from being entrepreneurs and business people. It is so sad to see such defenceless creatures slowly suffur while absorbing our selfish mistakes. Life is too short for this.

froghugger   June 14th, 2008 12:14 pm ET

We still haven't accepted that what comes around comes around....we have harmed everything on earth for the sake of "progress". The "primitive" cultures were a lot wiser than us today. We've planted the seeds of our own demise, and judging from some of the comments, that may not be such a bad thing for earth..

Allie Marine Biologist   June 14th, 2008 9:56 pm ET

This story is alarming in a way because it shows how big of a reach we have in our own world, in places we know almost nothing about. To the people who think we should not care about the Earth, you have a very dim view of the world around you. As a scientist, and person living on this planet, we have a lot of control over what happens here. We have ruined a lot of what we have and we should try to do our best to fix it. Yes, species go extinct, and we will too, but we are speeding up the process and causing unnatural things to happen. These animals deserve to be here just as much as you or I do. So what gives us the right to dump toxic chemicals into our rivers, oceans, etc? Nothing does. I agree with the point about not being reckless, but not trying to save the planet we live on goes too far. I do not care what country causes the most pollution nor do I have problems with people who are business people and entrepreneurs. I am sorry but I am American and I am a scientist. I am not ashamed of being an American so please do not generalize or insult us like that. I am not an alarmist environmentalist either. I care much about it and I am willing to study it and draw conclusions based on solid fact, not jumping at shadows. KC, you need to open your eyes a bit more and do not be so quick to judge others. I could have been very rude to you regarding things you said but I was not. You have your views as with others having their own but at least care about the place that you call home. We are considered the most intelligent race on this planet and with that comes a responsibility whether we want it or not. And it is to take care of what we have. If people do not agree with me, that is ok by me, that's life.

Franko   June 14th, 2008 11:53 pm ET

Poisonous frogs advertise; eat me and die.
How soon before we see very colorful octopi ?

Fishy Fish   June 15th, 2008 12:51 pm ET

I think the cephalopod pictured is an incarnation of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Note the resemblance.

Faye   June 16th, 2008 6:08 pm ET

Some of you people need to grow up! Evidently there are a lot of 9 year old boys who post here. Adults should know better than to make jokes about something so devastatingly serious. This kind of pollution will affect you too!!! Will it be funny then?

Franko   June 17th, 2008 3:04 am ET

Pollution is a byproduct of comfort and progress.
Sweep it under a rug, put it on top of a garbage mountain.
Drive a car, fry a carrot, light a campfire, roast a wiener.
We are born to pollute – pollute or die !

Decrease entropy around us, but increase entropy far away.

As long as better for us, the Octipussies will have to adapt !
After all, they neither have backbones, nor are USA voters !

Steven   June 18th, 2008 9:11 pm ET

Its really foolish to think we can't possibly hinder our planets ability to sustain life when in all actuallity we can do just that. Our planet's ecosystems are extremly fragile and must be kept in a balanced state of being. When we loose even one species it opens oppertunity for others which may in fact be benificial or harmful to us. By releasing pollutants into the air, water, and land we destroy precious natural resources. To people who say if we pollute it won't have an affect on us or it dosn't matter if we release Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere, or if entire ecosystems of animal species collapse it won't effect us your absolutly wrong. We really only have one planet and the fact is we can destroy it, we are indeed that powerful. Many people also believe global warming is a myth or incorrect science because we can't possibly change the composition of the atmosphere its "too big" your wrong about that too. Theres already scientific evidence about it to the point that it should become fact. If the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change which has pretty much every climate scientist's approval/ attention says theres something going on with global weather patterns then we should listen to them. I'm sorry but if u don't have a degree in science and then try to disapprove a scientists findings especially when climate is their specific area of research your extremly ignorant. On top of that, just saying that if it snows in places like Iraq, Israel, and parts of China that aren't supposed to get heavy snow fall like they had earlier on in the year its obvious that weather patterns are screwed up. Plus global warmning has diffrerent affects on weather systems world wide so it actually could be a possibility that global warming caused these events.

Franko   June 19th, 2008 1:56 am ET

"disapprove a scientists findings especially when climate is their specific area of research your extremly ignorant"

The climate modelling priesthood has been barking up the wrong equations. Curve fitting and extrapolating with secret fudge factors, to advance an agenda, and ensure funding.

When frost free days are one month late, and snowfree local mountain latest in 30 years, you have to have very deep faith that you are warming. IPCC says have faith and blow yourself up to get the 72 virgins.

Low CO2 and plants die. No plants, no Oxygen, and we die.

I will be paying $700+ CO2 tax, thanks to the IPCC
IPCC Zombies are the real danger.

Scott   June 19th, 2008 1:20 pm ET

So sad. We are the smartest animal on the planet and yet we don't see the signs that what we do on a daily basis for our own survival will eventually wipe out all other species. No matter what your politics, our existence here is finite. So much for intelligence, we should be talking about ignorance!

Franko   June 20th, 2008 2:42 am ET

To die as Sushi, or to live as a pollution waste dump.
That is the question.

Mosquitoes eat DDT; Also, Octopi are versatile in their tolerance.
Oceans have all kinds of pollutants and poisons.
Black Smokers do not kill them.
Monster of the Deep is tougher than you think.

Gee Mo   June 20th, 2008 1:35 pm ET

I know this comments list is already clogged with arguments going both ways, but here's a simple thought:

We're not perfect.

As humans, we strive to make the world better. We curb diseases and extend the shelf life of our food with technology. Chemicals like DDT were developed to make life better, when we figured out that it was doing a lot of harm, we stopped using it.

So, yes, as many of those posting have stated, we are human. No form of life is perfect, including us. Do the best you can not to destroy your part of the world, and chances are that the human species will continue to thrive.

Franko   June 23rd, 2008 11:47 pm ET

"No form of life is perfect, including us"

We certainly are perfect. The ideal is the imperfection.
The ideal is a dead remnant of the past, imperfect then and now.

Personal training Long Island   January 11th, 2014 11:20 pm ET

Human beings really do just destroy everything. It's amazing how we affect everything on this planet in such a negative way.

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