Algalita Marine Research Blog

BPA Newly Linked to Human Infertility

Posted by: Sarah Mosko

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko

Researchers are finding evidence for the first time that inadvertent exposure to BPA (bisphenol-A) in women of child-bearing age might hinder their fertility, and the levels of BPA involved are similar to that observed in the general U.S. population.

The synthetic chemical BPA has earned a solid reputation as an endocrine disruptor based on its estrogen-mimicking properties and documented health effects on lab animals exposed to even low, environmentally-relevant doses. Literally hundreds of animal studies have linked BPA to a wide spectrum of health concerns including obesity, diabetes, breast and prostate cancer, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, low sperm counts and abnormal genital development.

Human exposure to BPA is known to be widespread – over 90 percent of the U.S. population show BPA in their urine – and stems from water bottles and other consumer items made of polycarbonate plastics, the epoxy lining of most food & beverage cans, dental sealants and thermal check register receipts. Ingestion is thought to be the primary route of exposure.

Discerning whether current levels of BPA exposure in humans carry the same health risks seen in animals is intrinsically difficult because of ethical prohibitions on intentionally exposing people to a potentially harmful substance and because of the hodgepodge of other industrial chemicals to which humans are exposed.  However, preliminary reports have surfaced linking BPA to human female infertility.

A Harvard University study just published in April focused on women undergoing in vitro fertilizations (IVF) at a Massachusetts fertility clinic, measuring urinary BPA levels at successive IVF treatment cycles for correlation with success of embryonic implantation. In IVF, women take fertility drugs to stimulate production of eggs which are then harvested for fertilization with sperm in a laboratory dish before being transferred to the woman’s uterus. Whether or not implantation occurs successfully was assessed by following blood levels of the pregnancy hormone β-chorionic gonadotropin which begins surging within two weeks of conception.

The researchers measured embryonic implantations because the right balance of estrogen and progesterone is needed for successful implantation and because 50-75 percent of very early pregnancy losses are thought to result from failed implantation occurring before a woman even knows she’s been pregnant. Furthermore, BPA has previously been detected both in the fluid which bathes eggs still in the ovary and in amniotic fluid, which means exposure could occur as early as the time of conception.

Studying pregnancy achieved via IVF allowed the researchers to detect failed implantations that would be very difficult to measure in couples attempting to conceive naturally.

The key finding of the study was that implantation failure occurred more frequently the higher the level of BPA detected in the women’s urine. Women with the highest BPA levels had almost twice the odds of implantation failure as women with the lowest levels, even when the women’s ages and other factors affecting fertility were taken into account. Given that the concentrations of urinary BPA detected were similar to that reported by the Centers for Disease Control for women in the general U.S. population (geometric means of 1.53 μg/L and 1.97 μg/L, respectively), this means that any impact of BPA on fertility was occurring at environmentally-relevant doses. These findings parallel studies in mice showing that administering low doses of BPA hindered uterine implantation, resulting in reduced litter size.

Another recent human study honed in instead on possible effects of BPA on the quality of women’s eggs. Among women undergoing IVF at a reproductive center at the University of California at San Francisco, the likelihood of successful fertilization by sperm in a laboratory dish was lower when the eggs were from women with higher blood levels of BPA.

From this, the researchers concluded that inadvertent exposure to BPA somehow reduces egg quality. Studies in mice show that exposing young females to low-dosage BPA produces defective egg cells with the wrong number of chromosomes (i.e. aneuploidy).

The authors of these human studies emphasize that the findings are preliminary and that, even if they hold up, there is no guarantee they would generalize to women pursuing pregnancy through natural means. Women seeking treatment for infertility might, for example, be more sensitive to an endocrine disruptor like BPA. However, the findings are potentially important given that infertility rates are on the rise in the United States and other developed countries: roughly 10-15 percent of couples are infertile.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally announced on July 17 a ban on BPA limited to baby bottles and sippy cups. Although manufacturers of these childcare items had already eliminated BPA voluntarily, the main trade association for the plastics industry (the American Chemistry Council) requested a formal ban so as to eliminate confusion for consumers. At least 11 states, including California and New York, had already implemented their own restrictions on BPA in feeding products for children

In March, however, the FDA rejected a petition from the National Resources Defense Council to more globally ban BPA from all food contact uses, though the agency is reportedly still reviewing the chemical’s safety.

Women of child-bearing age who are concerned about their own exposure to BPA are left to fend for themselves for the time being.

The Harvard study appeared in the April 2012 issue of “Environmental Health Perspectives.” The U.C. San Francisco study appeared in “Fertility and Sterility,” April 2011.

Date Posted: July 30, 2012 @ 1:16 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

VIDEO: 2012 Expedition trawl images and locations

Posted by: Katie Allen

We’ve conducted 72 trawls in 47 days at sea, traveling over 6,000 miles from Majuro Atoll to Japan and back to Hawaii. Every trawl has produced fragments of plastic pollution, the first evidence of plastic pollution in the Western Garbage Patch south of 30°N. What we’ve found is that the western garbage patch and the eastern garbage patch are one homogenous garbage patch. The entire North Pacific Gyre is a swirling sea of large and small pieces of plastic pollution, from microplastic dust to whole crates, buckets and 1 ton masses of tangled nets and line. -Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres

Date Posted: July 11, 2012 @ 6:50 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Have You Ever Split an Orange 12 Ways?

Posted by: Katie Allen

The sea can be like gentle prison.  The apprehension of time itself is bent, tweaked, and all control is taken from you, and life is experienced at the speed of nature. Indeed, after 27 days at sea, what this crew knows of the Sea Dragon is like knowing the idiosyncrasies of an old friend.  Every angle has been noted.  Every nook has been explored as a possible place to sit.  The wind has been brutally uncooperative for over ten days now — coming directly from where we want to go. Every time I wake, I walk to the navigation station, where all the ship’s computer readouts are located. I look at our course, wind direction and wind strength. The variations are miniscule.

The weather is the same– sun mostly, but then a rain squall every now and again. The boat speed is the same. The sail combination is the same, all pulled in close (or close hauled in sailing terms) and bashing forward into the wind. True wind, as a term, is what you experience standing still on a stationary platform (i.e. land. If the wind is ten knots, that’s what it feels like on your face). But if you were to get on a bicycle and pedal ten knots into that wind, it would feel like twenty. Well, that’s what we’re experiencing; it’s called apparent wind and it makes it feel windy all the time—20 plus knots plus 5-6 knot boat speed. Swells, too, comes with the wind and typically follows the same vector as the wind that generates it.

What’s funny is that Sea Dragon was built to sail upwind for a race that went around the world backwards, against the dominant trade winds that are valued for being behind, pushing a boat along. As Rodrigo, our Captain said, “Why would anyone ever want to sail upwind around the world? I can’t imagine anything worse.” Both Rodrigo and first mate Jesse are a bit frustrated—when sailing upwind, endlessly for days, you make little progress and steering isn’t as easy as going downwind—mainly because there is no margin for error. As a driver, it takes awhile to get a feel for this boat, it’s size and how she handles. Specifically, when you go over a big wave, you have to steer hard against the wave to compensate for the wave pushing you downwind, and then quickly recover in the trough of the wave in the other direction without over-compensating. If you don’t do it right, you end up creating lateral force of motion on the ships hull, which makes for inefficient, slow sailing.  Keeping momentum is what keeps you on course, and dropping even 5 degrees means miles and miles you need to make up, tacking the other direction. It makes for what sailor’s call, a ‘slog’.

Every watch the team steers for three hours, rotating out, and as of late Rodrigo and Jesse have been installing themselves and the best drivers only behind the wheel—Jesse has been drinking out of an ‘I Love Hawaii mug’ which means, “I want to see my girlfriend as soon as possible.’ Steering well is an art, and time is gained and lost in small measures that when totaled to a sum make for significant impact on time of arrival. When people ask, “When do we get there?” He says, “It depends on how well you steer.” Every little infraction counts.

And this is why sailing across an ocean studying plastic garbage isn’t for everyone. Because it’s not always easy and when the weather and wind conspire against you, it can be tough to keep from going a little crazy. Think of it this way; when it starts raining on your picnic, you run for cover in the house or under a shelter. Just imagine never being able to do that—run for cover. All you can do is put a jacket on and prepare to get incredibly wet and then cold.

But, what is important to note is that everyone loves what were doing, and the challenge of it is what gives it its sublimity. We don’t just create ambassadors for change, we put them through the ringer to make sure they’re tough enough. I’m joking of course, but it’s true, each and everyone aboard this ship is going to be a tougher person once they get home and I’m constantly impressed by this group’s ability to laugh in the face of adversity, and keep on fighting for a common goal.

Yesterday, Marcus found an orange. It’s the only piece of fresh fruit or vegetable this crew has seen in over 12 days. We just didn’t get enough fresh fruit and vegetables because trying to get Sea Dragon’s mechanical problems sorted out before leaving was so encompassing. We split the orange and everyone savored his or her bite.  Everyday we wake up wondering when we’ll land as progress is made, inch by grinding inch, towards the smiles of our loved ones and solid ground beneath our feet. – Stiv, 5 Gyres

Date Posted: July 6, 2012 @ 7:10 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument

Posted by: Katie Allen

We’re skirting along the northern edge of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the largest marine protected area on the planet, established only 6 years ago. The ocean is the last frontier of conservation, with less than 1% currently set aside as a safe haven for marine life. For comparison,12% of land has this level of protection from governments worldwide, leaving nearly all of the ocean open to exploit.

The open ocean has become waste space. This expedition is the first exploration of plastic pollution in the western North Pacific Gyre south of 30°N. We skimmed the sea surface with 72 surface trawls, in over 6,000 miles of sailing. Every trawl contained plastic pollution. This would not be acceptable in our national parks at home, wildlife refuges, or reserves on land. Yet Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument receives thousands of pieces of plastic trash on its shores daily.

With this new level of protection will there be greater enforcement of MARPOL (Annex V of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships that prevents plastic from being dumped at sea anywhere in the world.)? Will the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument be able to characterize the waste washed ashore to determine type and product, then go after those companies or countries for compensation? Or perhaps they could even demand a benign material to replace the plastic in the most polluting products. Would cigarette lighters and toothbrushes in albatross stomachs pursuade their manufactures to use a biodegradable plastic, like PHA? If not for the sake of wildlife, can “Monument” status be used as a tool of enforcement?

What we know is that the wildlife living in the 1040nm x100nm are protected. They cannot be disturbed, overfished, or their islands developed. There is an enormous need for more marine protected areas, or MPAs. If your community, a local conservation organization, or government is working to create MPAs along your coastlines or into the open ocean, please give them your support. Creating a new MPA is one of the greatest contributions to conservation today, turning waste space into an ocean oasis for other life, and ourselves, to thrive. -Marcus, 5 Gyres


Date Posted: July 4, 2012 @ 10:00 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Last Trawl

Posted by: Katie Allen

We’re still far north of the boundaries of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, so a few days ago we pulled in the high-speed trawl and ended our sampling of the sea for plastic. Our research is done. Without having the exact counts and weights for this sample, I can at least say that this is one of the most dense trawls yet. And…there was a kukui nut in the net. The seed is from a tree indigenous to Hawaii, so we must be close.

We’ve conducted 72 trawls in 47 days at sea, traveling over 6,000 miles from Majuro Atoll to Japan and back to Hawaii. Every trawl has produced fragments of plastic pollution, the first evidence of plastic pollution in the Western Garbage Patch south of 30°N. What we’ve found is that the western garbage patch and the eastern garbage patch are one homogenous garbage patch. The entire North Pacific Gyre is a swirling sea of large and small pieces of plastic pollution, from microplastic dust to whole crates, buckets and 1 ton masses of tangled nets and line.

We’ve come here to survey the aftermath of debris from the Japanese Tsunami that devasted the east coast of Japan last year. We did find some remanants at sea, including a tire, fragment of flooring, and half a small fishing boat. But all of this now melts into the ebb and flow of plastic in the gyre. It was already there for the last half century, and now there will be a small increase after the tsunami. Yes, there are big pieces washing ashore in North America now, and the only solution to a natural disaster is to care for the victims and pick up the pieces. Shoreline cleanups will be necessary. But it is important that we acknowledge the background of plastic pollution that was there before, and the incessant flow of plastic pollution from our watersheds to the sea that happen every day. THAT disaster is within our control. Plastic washing from our communities to the sea is an unnatural disaster, and we can prevent it.

If we had to boil the solutions down to three big ideas they would begin with Industry. Smart design can create better products. “Benign by Design”, so that materials and chemicals in the product and its packaging have no lasting impact on the environment. Second, we look to our leadership to embrace “Extended Producer Responsibility” in its broadest sense. This means that anything produced in the world today has to have a plan for its full life cycle, from birth to death, or even better Cradle-to-Cradle. And finally, the consumer must understand and act to refuse throw-away plastic products and excess packaging, as well as consequences of littering. Store shelves are stocked with affordable smart alternatives.

We’ve only a few hundred miles to sail before landing in Maui. Our focus now is to conserve food and fuel, and sail as close to the wind as possible. Four days if we’re lucky. – Marcus, 5 Gyres


Date Posted: July 3, 2012 @ 9:58 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Midway Atoll, Midnight Philosophy, and A Plastic Buffet For Albatrosses

Posted by: Katie Allen


We’re just west of Midway Atoll and we’ve found the sun, thankfully. Sea Dragon is dried out, but we’re under provisioned and almost entirely out of vegetables (even canned) and the watermaker is acting up (again) and so the crew isn’t allowed fresh water showers. We have 1500 liters of fresh water until Maui which is enough for hydration and dishwashing, but that’s it. Not a big deal, but getting clean once every few days is something that keeps morale up for crew that’s had a pretty hard passage. Saltwater showers are what mariners have done forever and slowly but surely the crew is acquiescing to fact that a primitive brine bath is the only option for now. But for all the challenges, and to be frank–the weather and mechanical issues have put people to brink at times, one is always reminded that we’re not on a cruise, and we’re sailing across the ocean in small boat. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

But the joys are myriad and poignant, too. Recently we’ve had some of the most stunningly starry nights of the trip peppered by a fast waxing moon that casts us all in soft silhouettes and drifting moon shadows. When the stars come out, night watch becomes a forum for waxing poetic and philosophical. Starry nights also make for easy steering of the ship. Pick a star and keep it between the mast and the shrouds, and you’ll steer course. Meteor showers have become commonplace, expected. Paul and Dani are all a marvel at the night sky; The Northern Hemisphere constellations are new to them being from Australia and Brasil.

When you spend a month at sea with a group of people the first week is all about feeling each other out, looking for one’s place in the pecking order and what contributions one can make that are the most useful. But quickly, barriers are dropped, as are inhibitions.  We’ve become close as a crew. We monitor the Kelvin’s epic sea-sickness and are delighted that he’s moving about and eating again. We make sure everyone’s getting enough to eat, that mentally, we’re all keeping on. And everyday we practice our individual arts that consider this marine eco disaster we travel through known as plastic pollution.

For my part, I’ve been chasing albatrosses with my camera. For days, being so close to Midway, we’re seeing the regal birds all around. I’m in awe; they soar effortlessly, barely flapping their wings. They approach, circle, fish, then alight in the water for a rest and we leave them bobbing in Sea Dragon’s wake. But then, and again, they return only to alight once more. I’ve been photographing these birdswhich has proven difficult. Shooting a moving object from a pitching object at distance with a 200 mil lens is not easy. But I’ve managed to get a few shots that catch these marvelous creatures soaring and wandering the big blue. It’s this beauty, like that which I’ve described before that makes us care for this ocean and makes this voyage, ‘life changing.’

The wind is on the nose of Sea Dragon making for difficult headway eastward—bad wind directions gnaw on the nerves of our captains. All of us are looking for land where loved ones and arugula salads wait for us. But as we bash our way forward, I can’t help but draw a metaphor: sailing against the wind is like fighting against the tide of indifference that makes for an ocean full of plastic. Yet like you, we keep moving forward. -Marcus, 5 Gyres

Date Posted: July 1, 2012 @ 8:45 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut