Unusual levels of chemical pollutants found in fish and seafood around the Marshall Islands have led the Marshallese authorities to turn to the IAEA for assistance. Last month, a group of IAEA experts travelled to the country to see how nuclear and isotopic techniques could play a role in measuring the contaminants.
A study conducted in 2015 around several islands found concentrations of harmful contaminants in fish and runoff water that could pose a health threat to the population. The contaminants, the study concluded, were mainly pesticides, other organic chemicals and toxic metals. Experts say that this pollution could be caused by anything from boat paint stripping to unregulated waste disposal. For the moment, a fishing prohibition is applied in polluted harbours.
"We know the problem is there, but we need to identify exactly where it is coming from," said Moriana Phillip, General Manager at the Environmental Protection Authority of the Marshall Islands. "What we need is the capacity to measure it, track it and come up with a mitigation plan." The Marshallese are interested in screening for potential human and environmental threats in the most populated islands where the levels of contaminants are currently unknown.
With the help of nuclear-derived techniques, the authorities could determine where exactly the contaminants come from and how this pollution is affecting locals' health and the environment. "What they want is the technical expertise needed to measure the size and impact of the problem," said Johannes Corley, food safety specialist at the IAEA. "There may be a monster in the room, but the lights are off. What we are trying to do is to turn the lights on."
Before the end of the year, IAEA experts will train local scientists in the use of nuclear-derived techniques to track and measure contaminants in food, humans and the marine environment. Marshallese scientists will be trained and equipped to detect toxic chemicals and metals in fish, seafood, water, soil and sediment as well as to measure the levels of human exposure to these contaminants using a variety of standardized methods (see science box below).
The IAEA technical cooperation project providing support is expected to last through at least 2019. It combines expertise on food safety, health, nutrition and environmental protection.
Too many fish in the sea
Possible health effects from eating the contaminants include reduced life expectancy, delayed child growth and heightened risk of non-communicable diseases, among other effects on body metabolism. One of the aims of the IAEA project is to develop local capacities to measure body composition and nutrient intake.
"How do you tell a population that relies heavily on fish and seafood — fish forms 90% of their diet — to stop eating fish?" said Victor Owino, nutrition scientist at the IAEA. While the fishing prohibition continues, IAEA experts and Marshallese scientists will raise awareness about the importance of a diversified diet and how best to utilize fish, for example, by discarding the most contaminated portions.
Located between Hawaii and Australia, the remote country is spread across 29 coral atolls — rings of land that surround lagoons. It is in these lagoons, protected from the strong currents and large waves of the open ocean, where the Marshallese have fished for over a thousand years. The islands are made of sand or low coral limestone, leaving very little arable land for agriculture and making fish a major part of the diet and the main source of protein. Coconut, banana, plantain and pandanus fruit grow on the sandy soil, but foods such as vegetables, rice, eggs and milk, are imported.
Experts are also concerned about the environment. The direct impact of human activity on the environment and the resulting effects on human beings is pressing, according to Michail Angelidis, Head of the IAEA Marine Environmental Studies Laboratory in Monaco. Some of the contaminants are semi-volatile — easily evaporated — and can travel through water and air contaminating new places.
There may be a monster in the room, but the lights are off. What we are trying to do is to turn the lights on.