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17.15: Synthetic Organic Chemicals and Medical Wastes

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    • Contributed by Miracosta Oceanography 101
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    Synthetic Organic Chemicals

    Many types of organic compounds produced by humans have a toxic effect on the environment. Many synthetic organic chemicals are manufactured or are a byproduct in the production of many industrial, agricultural, and household products. Large quantities of synthetic materials were produced and released into the environment in the period after WWII until environmental regulation and control began to prevail in the 1970s. In that time interval, a great amount of damage was done in many industrialized coastal regions.

    Among the worst are chlorinated and halogenated hydrocarbons: DDT, TCE, and PCB’s.

    * DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was heavily used as an insecticide throughout the United States, particularly starting after World War II. DDT is an insecticide that was initially used by the military in WW II to control malaria, typhus, body lice, and bubonic plague. After the war, this inexpensive-to-produce chemical was extensively used with agriculture for insect control (insecticide). In the 1960’s DDT was found to cause adverse affects to wildlife, most notably causing predatory birds to produce thin shells, too thin for offspring to survive. DDT was banned from agricultural uses in 1972 over concerns of the unmitigated toxic effects on human health and many organisms in the natural environment. Unfortunately, DDT and other similar pesticides are still used in poor countries around the world to fight mosquitoes carrying malaria and other diseases.

    * PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are industrial products or chemicals, commonly used as insulator fluids in old transformers. PCB contamination is common in old industrial regions, particularly in the eastern United States. PCBs were banned in the U.S. in 1979 because of concerns about unintended impacts on human and environmental health. Like DDT, PBCs bio-accumulate.

    * TCE (trichoroethlene) as originally introduced as a general anesthetic until it was linked to severe neurological disorders. After WWII it is was widely used as an industrial solvent, used primarily to degrease engine parts. TCE poisoning began to increase in many areas where the liquid chemical was dumped into sewers and wells, contaminating water supplies for many communities. It was later determined to be carcinogenic was banned in the 1980’s by most developed nations.

    Medical Wastes

    Biologists are also reporting negative impacts of pharmaceutical compounds, medical wastes, and byproduct, including birth control pills, anti-depressants, and chemotherapy drugs finding their way into coastal waters. Illegal dumping of medical wastes at sea has been a large problem. Many coastal cities have had to deal with illegal dumping of medical wastes (commonly used hypodermic needles). Beaches were closed in many areas in the New York City region during the 1990s because of dangerous quantities of contaminated needles washing up on shore.