The following post is one of a series generated from research presented at the SETAC Europe Annual Meeting in Brussels, Belgium (7-11 May 2017). Each post features the latest research findings from SETAC scientists on emerging topics of interest.

Why does oceans health matter?

Oceans provide more for us than just the backdrop of our annual summer holidays—they provide food and medicine, help connect people and provide a means to deliver materials across the world, are a source of economic growth for coastal communities, and . But our strong connection to the marine environment also comes with some drawbacks. Seafood contamination, marine pollution, biological hazards such as red tides and antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and rising sea levels are just a few of the examples of how our own health is closely linked to that of our environment.




Credit: , .

A new and rapidly expanding field of research called Oceans and Human Health (OHH) examines the connections between our health and the health of marine environments. This work includes looking at both the benefits and the risks to people and how our actions can influence the health of marine ecosystems. The theme of OHH was prevalent at this year’s SETAC Brussels , where a common theme of keynote and platform presentations was the interconnections between environmental science and human health.

“This area of research is very strategically important for the world, and very important for SETAC as an organization, to move into.” said Colin Janssen, one of the co-chairs of the OHH session. “SETAC researchers are now beginning to focus more on the marine environment, as we are recognizing more and more that human health is not isolated from the environment’s health.” A discussion around the theme was kicked off at the Opening Keynote Presentation by Lora Fleming (University of Exeter) and was followed by a series of platform and poster presentations.

The science that connects oceans and human health

Red tide

Lora Fleming presented her collaborative work on red tide events in the state of Florida, in the US. Red tide is caused by microscopic algae (Karenia brevis) that release neurotoxins as aerosols, which are then transmitted by air and wind. Large outbreaks in Southwestern Florida were responsible for the deaths of many endangered Florida manatee and dolphin populations.

One significant result from this work was the finding that dolphins had eaten fish with trace amounts of red tide neurotoxin. Since dolphins do not eat dead fish, and it was previously thought that fish consumption did not confer a risk to neurotoxin exposure, these findings provided new evidence of the risks of consuming fish during red tide events. Fleming’s research team provided the evidence needed to change existing policies for red tide event management in order to better protect both marine and human health.


Red tide off the coast of La Jolla, California (2005). Credit: , .

The human health impacts of red tide events could also be seen beyond the beach where direct exposure occurs. Fleming and her team found that red tide outbreaks were linked to increases in emergency room visits and exacerbated breathing problems for people with respiratory conditions such as asthma. Fleming’s work highlights the pervasive nature of red tide events, providing a better understanding of how people are affected by the health of the marine environment.

Maarten de Rijcke from Ghent University later presented results of a study focused on red tide pollution in the North Sea. Rijcke and his team placed caged mussels at a coastal sluice dock and looked for algal bloom neurotoxins in the mussels. Researchers found a complex mixture of toxins present in the mussels after only 15 days, and several of the neurotoxins they found had unknown toxicities. Rijcke highlighted the importance for looking at algal bloom toxins levels in economically important species, as well as looking at toxins more broadly, instead of only focusing on neurotoxins of known toxicities. He stated that chemicals which are not regularly monitored—or for which no toxicity data exist—might still have a negative impact on human health, and that these should be assessed when possible.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in surfers

Anne Leonard, University of Exeter, presented research on how antibiotic resistance spreads through coastal environments. Coastal areas are strongly impacted by human activities, including run-off from agricultural fields and wastewater treatment plants, and are also a place that people have the most physical contact with the ocean.


Surfer at Oceanside Pier, California, Credit: , .

Leonard collected coastal water samples and counted the numbers of Escherichia coli that could produce a protein that is able to provide resistance to several antibiotics. Leonard then conducted a survey of surfers compared to non-surfers to see if there was a connection between time spent in the ocean and the presence of drug-resistant E. coli. Volunteers provided rectal swabs and filled in questionnaires as part of the Beach Bum .

Data from the Beach Bum study shows that surfers were four times more likely to be colonized by drug-resistant E. coli when compared to people who did not surf. While there appeared to be no direct risk from the E. coli on this healthy population of surfers, Leonard commented that their presence in a healthy population means they can easily spread to more difficult-to-treat and sensitive patients. This research also shows that coastal recreational and occupational exposure to microbes might be a significant route of AMR transmission.

The benefits of interacting with the oceans


Credit: , .

Fleming shifted the tone of the platform presentations to focus on the benefits gained through positive interactions with marine environments. She presented results from scientific surveys, interviews, and controlled experiments in the UK. Benefits include better health reported in people who live close to the ocean or other bodies of water, with the strongest effects seen in poorer communities. Her group also found a reported reduction in stress and an increase in physical activity after people visited coastal areas. Researchers also found that people who visited marine areas reported increased interactions among family members and had increased vitamin D levels. Fleming and her group are now working to understand and consolidate the benefits of “” in the UK, findings which consistently demonstrate positive benefits from interactions with healthy marine environments.

What’s next for the field of oceans and human health?

A number of research projects across Europe and the United States will continue to conduct research on the connections between oceans and human health. These research projects are also looking to foster connections with other fields such as economics, psychology, and science communication. Learn more about these initiatives in the EU by visiting the Horizon 2020 Blue Health and the SeaChange ocean literacy .

“If we can show that oceans really are valuable, in an economic sense as well as a public health sense, and that healthy ecosystems are good for our own health and well-being, we can promote more pro-environmental behavior in people.” said Fleming. “I hope that researchers in toxicology and public health will continue to take this topic forward as a truly transdisciplinary field. That we can value and treat our world better and own what we do to the environment in a positive way.”

Given the statement: “Rijcke highlighted the importance for looking at algal bloom toxins levels in economically important species, as well as looking at toxins more broadly, instead of only focusing on neurotoxins of known toxicities. He stated that chemicals which are not regularly monitored—or for which no toxicity data exist—might still have a negative impact on human health, and that these should be assessed when possible.”

Regulatory agencies are far too often functionally restricted in pointedly investigative public health toxicology work because of legislative fears of funding any toxic contaminant water sampling, analysis, and public health assessment. Industry lobbies threaten legislators with reduced election funding if they ‘make to many waves’ toward funding agency due diligence.
As a result, there is a pervasive water quality assessment deficit across the board by water quality-responsible agencies (e.g. Flint, and Portland Oregon drinking water disasters etc.).
Scientific integrity, of due diligence in support of the public health paradigm, calls for far better funding of water quality assessment. Harmful algal bloom toxicants have many potential public health risks that are begging for increased scientific assessment that never gets funded adequately. Monitoring is essential for the scientific method to guide public health, and SAVES far more money than it costs, because it enables us to correct problems in a timely fashion to avoid having to go on paying for externalized costs to society over and over again into the future.
There are emerging potential risks from harmful algal bloom food accumulative, and airborne exposures in proximity to impaired waters (e.g. BMAA toxin and associated neurotoxins).
Adequate assessment depends on us to overcome the political biases that restrict funding to the responsible agencies and research institutions. Monitoring does NOT cost too much, monitoring SAVES money, and saves health…. it is ultimately cost effective.