Great Barrier Reef: Sea Turtles In Danger Of Dying From Human Pollutants

John Houck

The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia is teeming with marine life, but new research has found dangerous pollutants are infiltrating the sea creatures, specifically green turtles. While analyzing blood samples taken from turtles living near the reef, researchers from the Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences were shocked to discover medications, herbicides, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals present within the animals.

Test results identified several man-made substances, which likely have a detrimental impact on the health of the Great Barrier Reef turtles. The drugs allopurinol, a kidney stone treatment, and milrinone, used by patients with heart problems, were both found in the samples. Other compounds commonly used in cosmetics, adhesives, and household cleaners were also revealed. Of the more than 100 substances detected in the turtles' blood, many had to be classified as unknown.

"The worrying thing is there are more chemicals we could not identify than chemicals we could," said the study's co-author Amy Heffernan, as cited by EcoWatch. "There is one new chemical registered for use every six seconds, so the libraries and the databases that we use to identify these chemicals just can't keep up."

The blood samples were taken from various turtles at multiple locations along a 1,400-mile stretch of the Great Barrier Reef. While the samples tested for different chemicals depending on the area of the reef where the turtles spent much of their time, all showed signs of human contaminants.

"Humans are putting a lot of chemicals into the environment and we don't always know what they are and what effect they are having," said Heffernan. "What you put down your sink, spray on your farms or release from industries ends up in the marine environment and in turtles in the Great Barrier Reef."

The scientists involved in the Great Barrier Reef study believe the toxic chemicals trapped in the soil eventually flow out into the sea when flooding on land occurs. Ultimately, the compounds are absorbed by seagrass and coral, which the green turtles feed on.

The project's findings help explain the high rates of death and disease among the green turtle population in recent years. Exposure to these chemicals is believed to cause multiple health issues, including inflammation and liver dysfunction. In 2014, a study of sea turtles suffering from Fibropapillomatosis, a chronic and potentially deadly disease, living near Hawaii found a potential link with man-made pollution.

Six different species of sea turtles make their home in and around the Great Barrier Reef. Sadly, they are all classified as either endangered or vulnerable by wildlife experts.

The Great Barrier Reef study, funded by the World Wildlife Foundation-Australia and Banrock Station Wines Environmental Trust, was part of a multi-year project to determine how pollution is affecting the reef and the marine life that inhabit the environment. The analysis of turtles was a strong and alarming indicator that toxic chemicals are creeping into the reef and surrounding wildlife. It also provides evidence that could convince world governments that current pollution is an immediate challenge that needs a cooperative solution.

Toxic chemicals seeping into the water may not be the only environmental problem facing the Great Barrier Reef. While the science behind climate change is up for debate, some conservation experts think rising ocean temperature is killing some fragile organisms that make the reef their home.

In the past few years, the Great Barrier Reef has suffered through multiple "bleaching" events. These events occur when ocean temperatures reach a level beyond what is tolerable by the tiny creatures that use the coral reef as shelter. Once the organisms either die or leave, the beautiful and vibrant colors associated with coral reefs fades, leaving the reef a bright white. Recent measurements of the reef found nearly 30 percent of shallow-water corals turned white during a 2016 bleaching event.

While covering less than one-tenth of one percent of the ocean floor, the Great Barrier Reef is essential for the growth and health of the surrounding ecosystem. Populated by over 1,500 species of fish and a natural nursery for numerous marine animals, the world's mightiest reef may one day succumb to the adverse effects of man-made pollution.

[Featured Image by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images]