Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Eastern Garbage Patch

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Scientists were dispatched this week into the middle of the Pacific ocean to study the Eastern Garbage Patch - a floating mass of refuse about twice the size of Texas.

The patch, predicted in 1988 by Alaskan scientists, is a disgusting reminder that the true price of our disposable lifestyles is paid by Mother Earth.

Some may wonder though, why is a mass of floating plastic such a big threat?

The damage caused by plastic is more than just your typical bird caught in six-pack rings. The most harm comes from chemicals released during breakdown. In fact, the same chemicals that give plastic its usefulness - its ability to be molded and its lightweight strength - are the same chemicals that cause serious harm.

Plastics are polymers: long, repeating chains of a complex molecule. The complex molecules are organic , which technically means they contain carbon. Organic molecules are more likely to interact with living cells, and indeed, pollutants from plastic do bind to receptor proteins on the outside of cells. In this way, they mimic natural signals and cause the wrong message to be transmitted within the organism.

PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) and PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are a common product of plastic degradation. Besides other toxic effects, these chemicals can mimic the action of a molecule called estradiol, related to estrogen, which can cause pesky problems in the reproductive system - like turning male fish into female fish.

There are efforts on the way to clean up the patch, and indeed, that is the purpose of the ships' travel to this region this month, to study the feasibility of such a cleanup.

In my opinion, no cost would be too high to rid our oceans of this junk.

~Rheanna Sand

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