The oceans can affect our health in many ways. They contain many types of microscopic organisms, some of which produce toxins when conditions are right. Toxins from harmful algal blooms, sometimes called red tides, can contaminate shellfish such as clams and mussels. Eating the contaminated seafood may cause serious illness. Harmful algal blooms are unsafe to touch or swallow, and they can produce airborne toxins that cause health problems when inhaled.
Climate change can add to and intensify some of these health risks. For example, climate change-related severe weather events, such as hurricanes, can stir up sediment and alter the gradient of man-made pollutants to which coastal populations are exposed. These weather events also contribute to persistent storm damage and flooding, increasing exposure to fungus and mold-related health effects.
What NIEHS Is Doing
Since 2004, NIEHS and the National Science Foundation jointly fund research on marine-related health issues through the Centers for Oceans and Human Health and through individual research projects focusing on oceans and the Great Lakes in relation to human health. Grantees develop techniques for more accurate and earlier detection of harmful algal blooms with the goal of preventing and reducing exposure. They also study the health effects of eating seafood containing toxins produced by harmful algal blooms.
In addition, NIEHS grantees examine the health effects of consuming seafood containing pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls and mercury. They identify indicators of recreational water contamination and illness. They also explore how climate change might affect the formation and transfer of methylmercury to the fish and shellfish that humans eat.
Researchers are studying whether the virulence and antibiotic resistance of the pathogens Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus will be altered due to climate change-related variation in water temperature, salinity, acidity, and mineral composition.
The Time-Sensitive Research Opportunities in Environmental Health program is a mechanism to allow for nimble response to extreme weather events such as hurricanes or harmful algal blooms. For example, NIEHS has supported studies on pollutants following Hurricane Harvey and exposure to mold in flooded homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
NIEHS also led the trans-NIH Deepwater Horizon Research Consortia program. Through community-university partnerships, these consortia worked to identify and address personal and community health effects stemming from the oil spill. Consortia researchers also studied the health of Gulf seafood after the oil spill.