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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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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

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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?"

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?

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?

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.

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.

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.

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 ?

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 !

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.

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