Monday, May 2, 2011

Dr. Susan Shaw: working towards a better ocean without chemicals

What is a marine toxicologist? Toxicology is the study of toxins and man-made chemicals and their impact on the environment. Turn that focus towards the oceans and you have someone like Dr. Susan Shaw, who has been studying marine toxicology for many years and serves as the Director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute (MERI) in Maine, USA.

Dr. Shaw's studies in the early part of the past decade brought about the discontinuation in the use of the flame retardant, Deca, which was working its way into the local marine ecosystem and contaminating marine mammals and commercial fish stocks. The impact of Deca is emblematic of the issue of supposedly beneficial man-made chemicals and what ancillary or side effects they have when they are allowed to work their way through various ecosystems.

Clothes and furniture can be made flame-retardant but repeated washings or improper disposal will cause the chemical retardants to make their way into the water system. There are many chemicals that can pass through most water treatment facilities (or get dumped untreated directly into the sea), and so ecosystems can be exposed to these chemicals - chemicals ranging from fire retardants to metal particles that make up the odor-eating protection in socks to so-called anti-bacterial agents in soaps. What these disparate chemicals all have in common is that they provide mankind with some sort of specific benefit, and they don't belong out there with mother nature.

Dr. Shaw, more recently, was very much involved in analyzing the effects of oil dispersants in the Gulf, following the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. She was one of the few divers to actually
jump into the midst of the oil in the Gulf to get first hand observations and she established an independent investigative group, Gulf EcoTox, to study the effects of oil and, in particular, oil dispersants on the food chain.

Understandably, that brought her inside the government's radar and, in 2010, she was appointed to the Department of the Interior's Strategic Sciences Working Group - a 14-member team that will assess the impact of the BP oil spill and make policy recommendations. Hopefully, those recommendations won't fall on politically deaf ears.

For her efforts on behalf of the oceans, the marine species within, and, in fact, all species (including man) that can be impacted by the subtle but pernicious effects of toxins, Dr. Shaw was recently awarded the 2011 Gold Medal from the Society of Women Geographers. In addition, the National Audubon Society's Women In Conservation Program is recognizing Dr. Shaw later this month as "Woman of the Gulf" the the annual Rachel Carson Award event in New York.

“Toxic contaminants in the oceans are a threat to marine and human life whether they are coming from oil and dispersants or from the flame retardants in our couches and computers. The scale of damage may be different in the Gulf of Maine and in the Gulf of Mexico , but we need to realize that polluting our oceans poses health risks to both people and wildlife,” said Dr. Shaw.

It's good to know that we have people like Susan Shaw looking out for our front, sides, and backsides. Marine toxicology may not be as "sexy" as other more publicly visible research arenas, but it serves to protect us from the important pollutants and, indeed, from ourselves.

Congratulations to Dr. Susan Shaw and all the "Dr. Shaws" toiling quietly behind the scenes.

Visit the MERI website.
Read about Dr. Shaw's
accomplishments and recent recognition.

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