The ocean is a fruit cake or why pollution is so delicious

As we move into the holiday season, many of us are giddily making plans for the food that we’ll be stuffing down our gullets. Turkey or Tofurkey? Christmas ham or vegan seitan? Fruit cake, gingerbread, cranberry sauce, persimmon jam, sweet cheese and heavy cream…hungry yet? Or feeling nauseous?

I for one, am ready to get stuffed.

While you’re busy cramming in the third helping of turkey, you are most likely only thinking about that first part of the equation (the stuffing in), and maybe the second part (getting fat). You’re probably not considering the third part (exiting). It’s important to remember though, that what you gobble up this holiday season isn’t necessarily going to stay in your body. A lot of it ends up coming out of you, entering the sewage system and landing itself in the ocean. Yes, you are not just seasoning that cake you little chef, you are seasoning the ocean too…by way of your butt.

I know you’ve already heard about all sorts of pharmaceuticals in drinking water, ground water, surface water and sea water (1). Thank goodness too, because there were so many fish suffering from anxiety disorders before we added Fluvoxamine to the water. And we’ve been caffeinating the ocean through waste water for years, too (2).

Antidepressants and coffee? Sounds more like your early 20’s than the ocean. It turns out though, that in addition to all those chemical additions, we are also spicing the ocean—really spicing it, with thyme, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla and more (3). Yum?

Many of you smarties are thinking, “Spices come from plants; how could we possibly know that these additional spices are coming from people and not from the local flora?”

Well, one way to evaluate this is to look at the seawater close to a waste outlet from a large population. For arguments sake, let’s take a place like Puget Sound, which is close to Seattle, and compare it to nearby seawater that’s not close to a large population (or their sewage treatment plant.) Like, say Barkley Sound near Vancouver Island.

If you did, you’d find that chemicals from some cooking spices were 10-100x higher in Puget Sound than Barkley Sound. This included vanillin (from vanilla), cinnamic acid (from cinnamon), thymol (from thyme, but also used in mouthwash… and interestingly also pesticides….brush up!), and limonene (from citrus, but also used in cleaning agents) (4).
Ok, so I’ve convinced you that people are seasoning the ocean.

“But,” you argue, “These spices come from natural sources! They are all from tree bark or lemon peels or fake vanilla manufacturing factories. How could they possibly be bad for sea life? If anything we are making a very lovely sea tea. It’s like body butter for sea urchins. Scented oils for eels. Perfumes for prawns. Fish should really thank us for making them smell more like… cake.”

Well, we don’t know what effect this flavor explosion will have on the local ecosystem—that’s the problem. Maybe it’ll make sea snails that much more tasty to crabs – who doesn’t love a mulled gastropod? Maybe it’ll put clams in the mood.

It’s important to reflect back on the original purposes of these chemicals, though. Caffeine, for example, is a defensive compound used by plants to ward of insects. Cinnamon and thymol are lovely anti-microbial molecules. Imagine now an ocean filled with defensive compounds and anti-microbials. And anti-depressants. And OCD medication. Still hungry?

So questions abound as to the effect of these spices on ocean animals. I’d be glad to do the research. All I need is a bag of snails and a box of cinnamon to find out. NSF grant anyone?

Further Reading:
(1) Ecotoxicological aspects related to the presence of pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment
(2) Caffeine in Boston Harbor seawater
(3)Analysis of Cooking Spices in Natural Waters
(4) Differential presence of anthropogenic compounds dissolved in the marine waters off Puget Sound, WA and Barkley Sound, BC.

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science writer in the Bay area. She is looking forward to having loads of cinnamon and nutmeg in her meals this coming week, and then promptly depositing them into the Bay. Honestly compared to the crazy things that have been flushed down the Berkeley toilets since the early 60’s, cinnamon is most likely the least of our worries.

Leave a Comment