Popularity of plastic takes toll on oceans, puts human health at risk

3 min read

Our love affair with plastic — from water bottles and shopping bags … to product packaging — is taking a toll on the world’s oceans, and damaging the health of people, marine birds, and animals. The filmmakers and scientists behind a documentary exploring this problem recently joined Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health community members for a film screening and panel discussion.

The Nov. 13, 2017 screening of “A Plastic Ocean” brought a packed audience of researchers, students, staff, and others to the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center. The event was sponsored by Harvard Chan School’s Office of the Dean and the Harvard Global Health Institute. The panel moderator was Adam Leipzig, film producer. Harvard Business School alumnus Daniel Auerbach, M.B.A. ’87, who helped arrange the event, also spoke.

More than 8 million of the nearly 300 million tons of plastic produced every year — half of which is estimated to be for single use — are dumped in the world’s oceans … This debris can sicken seabirds and marine life that ingest it, potentially harming the health of people who consume affected animals.

Several years ago, journalist Craig Leeson, director of “A Plastic Ocean,” was filming whales underwater in what he considered a pristine part of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sri Lanka when he discovered discarded plastic bottles on the ocean floor. Thus began a four-year documentary film project, for which he … traveled … around the globe to document the effects of plastic on marine ecosystems.

In her remarks, Harvard Chan School Dean Michelle A. Williams said the event could hardly have been more timely. “It comes at a point when it’s increasingly clear that we must look to gatherings like this, and to people like you in this room, for leadership on critical issues like pollution and climate change,” Williams said. Communication among people from diverse backgrounds and experiences is the key to finding solutions. “Communication creates the necessary conditions for both sound policy and wise personal choices. In public health, this means speaking up and speaking out about what we know to be true,” she said. “We know climate change is linked to human activity. We know air and water pollution are harming people’s health—not in some remote time and place, but here and now. And we know that pollution of the oceans affects the entire planet, not just some exotic sea birds … Yet our scientific training teaches us to hedge where we could declare, to be precise at the expense of being clear, to provide information where we could instead share wisdom.”

Panelist Ashish Jha, senior associate dean, research translation and global strategy and K.T. Li Professor of Global Health at Harvard Chan School and Harvard Global Health Institute director, said scientists … need to speak up with more certainty about ocean pollution … When scientists fail to speak definitively about causes and effects of pollution, it makes the issue seem “distant” and people are less likely to take action to change it. “You have to make that connection to human health,” he said. “That’s what it takes to motivate people.”