She Tested The Ocean For Pollutants. Then She Ran The Same Tests On Herself.

"It turned out that of the 35 chemicals that we tested for, I actually had 29 of them inside of me.”

Emily Penn set out to find pollutants in the ocean, but when she discovered them in her own body, she was launched on a new path of inquiry alongside an all-female crew..

Penn, a  sailor who is currently leading the crew through the North Pacific Gyre, has taken several sailing trips to explore the ocean areas where much of our garbage ends up. As reported by the BBC, during all those trips, she was part of teams who would test the waters for pollutants and chemicals that were left behind by the plastics — and then she had the idea to test herself. 

"I started doing more investigation into the chemical side of it and also tested my own body for these same chemicals that we were finding as pollutants in the ocean," Penn told A Plus in a satellite phone call while sailing the Pacific Ocean. "And it turned out that of the 35 chemicals that we tested for, I actually had 29 of them inside of me."

Microplastics that were found in the ocean during eXXpedition's voyage.
Microplastics that were found in the ocean during eXXpedition's voyage. (c) eXXpedition

While it's unclear how the chemicals ended up in Penn's body — potential sources range from eating fish or from breathing them in as a child — it alarmed her. Some of the chemicals, Penn would learn, were endocrine disruptors, which mimic hormones. For women, especially pregnant women, having elevated concentrations of those chemicals could be a serious issue.

Even more frightening, Penn said, was that many of those chemicals can only leave the body via breastfeeding or pregnancy, meaning that they would be passed on to the child.

"That's when I realized this was a fairly sensitive issue for women, so why not tackle it with an all-female crew?" Penn said.

Penn is the co-founder of eXXpedition, a series of long voyages with crews of women to explore the oceans, trawl for microplastics, and test those plastics to figure out where they came from, what is in them, and how small they are. 

Right now, Penn is with a crew sailing the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of ocean three times the size of France with over five trillion pieces of microplastics, many of which are smaller than the nail on your little finger. Her crew consists of scientists, teachers, filmmakers, artists and policymakers, each with their own "superpower," Penn said. Their journey began in Hawaii and will run to Vancouver on a 72-foot long research vessel named the Sea Dragon.  

The crew of eXXpedition leaving the harbor in Hawaii.
The crew of eXXpedition leaving the harbor in Hawaii. (c) eXXpedition

When their trip is done, Penn and her crew will be turning over their data and experiments to universities across the globe to help better understand the way ocean waters are polluted. 

After seeing the Pacific Garbage Patch first hand, Penn said she believes we should focus on stopping the production of plastic rather than a futile attempt at cleaning the oceans, which she views as impossible.  As they sail through the North Pacific Gyre, her crew can spot household products like toothbrushes and combs in the water, things she never thought she'd find in the ocean.

"Coming from one of the most optimistic people you'll ever speak to, I don't think its possible [to clean the ocean]," Penn said. "There are five trillion of them [plastic pieces] and they scattered over one of the hardest to reach parts of our planet, and that's what we're dealing with. That and the fact that they are the same size and entangled with the marine life and organic matter that is so crucial."

(c) eXXpedition
(c) eXXpedition

Penn does have hope, though. In her view, there has never been more awareness about the need to stop using plastic and to stop depositing it in the ocean. 

"What we realize is it's these billions of little micro-actions — one man's toothbrush, one lady's comb, and that's what causes the problem," Penn said. "But the optimism here is that's all we need to solve it as well. We need billions of small actions, just tiny little things every day to reduce consumption."

Now, awareness is reaching a fever pitch, sometimes in ways that go well beyond "micro-actions." In Seattle, for instance, the city just banned plastic straws and utensils. Ultimately, Penn said, if we can reduce our own use of plastics, the ocean's restorative properties will take care of the rest. 

"One thing about the oceans is that they are really good at restoring themselves," Penn said. "I fully believe that the ocean can have a full recovery, but we really need to just stop putting the pollution in."

Cover image via eXXpedition.

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