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Health Outcomes Become Entangled in Ocean Plastics




The world is starting to realize the potential harm from exposure to plastics – harm to marine life, human life, and all ecosystems.


Marine life is at significant risk. For instance, according to Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the Australian National Science Agency, 52% of all sea turtle species have consumed plastic [1]. And a single piece of plastic increases their risk of death by 22% with the risk rising to 50% as a turtle consumes 14 plastic pieces [2].


Plastics are known to damage the marine ecosystem services we all rely on, with annual economic losses ranging from a staggering $6 – $19 billion U.S. Dollars, according to UNESCO [3]. In addition, several recent studies are finding human health complications due to the presence of plastics within our bodies [4]. 


To address the growing concern over plastic contamination, we have launched an effort, funded by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), to track the presence of plastics in our oceans and waterways globally.


Using Earth Observation imagery from the Sentinel-2 satellite constellation along with map algebra algorithms from the Sentinel Hub and a plastic detection equation from a peer-reviewed study [5], we’ve identified the plastic presence in surface waters for the Fox River Basin, as shown in Figure 1. Understanding and responding to plastic pollution is especially important for Arctic populations as local fishing is often a primary food source.




Figure 1: Plastic presence in the Foxe River Basin in the Canadian Arctic.



This analysis is used to create a risk index that identifies the risk of the local, native, and indigenous populations in the Arctic to adverse health outcomes due to bioaccumulation of plastics and their associated toxins. Additional information on the Bioaccumulation of Plastics Health Risk Index is available in this case study.


We’ve repeated the analysis for Puget Sound in Washington State, shown in Figure 2 below. A quick look at this image shows a limitation in this current approach for inland waters. 


The current approach, which worked in the Foxe River Basin, of leveraging multispectral analysis appears to pick up concentrations of sediments in the water along with plastics. Those in Seattle will recognize that the Sound isn't completely covered in plastic. 


Figure 2: Misidentification of plastic presence in Puget Sound.




So, for oceans and bodies of water where there won't be sediment on the surface this approach works. To identify plastic presence in inland bodies of water high resolution hyper-spectral imagery or updated multi-spectral plastic detection algorithms are needed. Hyperspectral imagery provides additional spectral reflectance information to discern between sediment and plastics. We are open to alternative suggestions and happy to collaborate with others who have looked at the issue of plastic contamination in our waterways. 


As we explore all options, we will continue with water bodies less susceptible to sediment, which includes lakes and the open ocean. 


Again, we are undertaking this endeavor as we believe the first step in solving any problem is to understand it in detail. In this case, to understand the health risks posed we need to know

where specifically the plastic contaminants are so we can track their movement both forward and back to their source, and develop and execute plans to mitigate and/or clean the oceans of plastics. 


Our goal is to make this data available publicly so the world's decision makers and all who are passionate about the water can work to address the challenges of plastic contamination and exposure. We seek your support. Please visit and join our effort at Stop Plastic Pollution.

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