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Connecting the oceans and human health.

Life on Earth is and has always been inextricably associated with the oceans that occupy greater than 70% of the planet's surface. The origins of life as we know it began in the depths of the oceans, and human life is still unreservedly dependent on the same oceans. As of 1994, more than 2 billion people lived within 60 miles of a coastline (Cohen et al. 1997); today, 14 of the world's 17 largest cities lay on or near coasts (United Nations Population Division 2002).

The proximity of human populations to ocean coasts is not surprising when our past, current, and future dependence on coastal waterways for food, commerce, travel, and recreation are taken into consideration. The largest source of protein in the world is fish, and more fish are harvested throughout the world than cattle, sheep, poultry, or eggs (Srinivas 1999). Billions of dollars are generated annually from fishing alone (National Marine Fisheries Service 2003), and other commercial ventures include travel and recreational use of coastal waterways. In addition to human dependence on the oceans for life, work, food, travel, and fun, human health is also associated with the oceans.

The oceans are teeming with life and serve as the world's greatest reservoir of biodiversity, including marine mammals, fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and countless species of zoo- and phytoplankton. It is this marvelous biodiversity that will allow us to take advantage of the oceans' bounty, and identify and develop marine-derived biopharmaceuticals to improve human health outcomes. Recent work from a number of investigators' laboratories has shown that marine invertebrates produce compounds that have potential for development as pharmaceuticals, with applications in treatment of neurodegenerative disorders, cardiovascular and infectious diseases, and certain cancers.

Human health outcomes related to the oceans have been documented as far back as 800 B.C., when illness resulting from consumption of contaminated fish was recorded in Homer's Odyssey (Halstead 1988). In present times, ocean-related human illnesses are still primarily caused by consumption of contaminated seafood, but are also caused by inhalation of aerosolized toxins. Worldwide each year, more than 60,000 cases of poisoning by exposure to harmful algal blooms (HABs) are reported (Van Dolah 2000). HABs release marine toxins that are frequently associated with kills of fish, birds, and marine mammals. Adverse health outcomes in humans range from acute neurotoxic disorders such as paralytic shellfish poisoning, neurotoxic shellfish poisoning, and ciguatera fish poisoning to more chronic diseases such as chronic liver disease caused by microcystins and amnesic shellfish poisoning from domoic acid exposure. Presently it is not known what is responsible for or triggers outbreaks of HABs. Methodologies for early detection or remote sensing of outbreaks would provide a major mechanism for reducing and preventing exposures to marine toxins released by HABs.

Worldwide, human activities associated with point and nonpoint sources of pollution result in the discharge of billions of gallons of wastewater into oceans and coastal waterways. In the United States alone, 2.8 billion gallons of industrial wastewater are released into the oceans annually (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 1994). These activities represent human patterns and behaviors that exacerbate the adverse impact that oceans and coastal waterways can have on human health through exposure to water- or vectorborne pathogens. It is clear that the oceans are a life-sustaining, reinvigorating resource that demands proper stewardship, because human well-being and public health outcomes are at risk. Greater resources should be brought to bear in terms of scientific research on pathogen growth patterns and detection in the oceans. This would greatly facilitate reduction of hazardous human exposure and disease.

The oceans have unfortunately become conduits for a number of environmental threats to human health. In order to guard against health threats, and at the same time to take advantage of medicinal benefits that the oceans might provide, the impact of oceans on human health must be more fully explored. Programmatic development in oceans and human health research originated in 1998, when the NIEHS participated in interagency activities, workshops, and Institute of Medicine panels as part of the International Year of the Ocean. That same year, the NIEHS cosponsored the U.S. Pavilion with its theme of Oceans and Human Health at the World's Fair in Lisbon. A 1998 presidential National Ocean Conference in Monterey, California, and subsequent workshops at the Bermuda Biological Station for Research and elsewhere assisted in providing the framework for a research strategy. Through multiple discussions, the NIEHS and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences decided to create one oceans and human health research program that would combine NSF expertise in ocean biology, chemistry, and physics with NIEHS expertise in environmental health and prevention research. This program would also take advantage of the institute's ties to the public health community.

The four new Centers for Oceans and Human Health collaboratively sponsored by the NIEHS and the NSF (and described on p. A468 of this issue) have established a new paradigm for linking the health and the rich resources of the Earth's oceans with the health outcomes of the Earth's population. By harnessing the various talents, disciplines, and expertise of scientists supported by the collaborating agencies; by combining the tools of genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics with physical oceanography; and by stimulating intercenter cooperation and coordination, this program offers tremendous promise for developing more comprehensive linkages between oceans and human health as the world's population continues to depend on one of our greatest natural resources for food, commerce, transportation, and recreation. Supported by the physical and biological science resources of the NSF and the NIEHS, the centers also demonstrate the capacity of federal research agencies to collaborate and leverage resources to foster high-quality interdisciplinary research.

This novel, groundbreaking interagency effort fulfills one of the key recommendations of the recent Preliminary Report of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy 2004): to encourage interdisciplinary marine biomedical research to improve our understanding of the links between oceans and human health. In the coming years, these NIEHS-NSF Centers for Oceans and Human Health will serve as models both of life-physical sciences interaction and of federal coordination.


Cohen JE, Small C, Mellinger A, Gallup J, Sachs J, Vitousek PM, et al. 1997. Estimates of coastal populations [Letters]. Science 278(5341):1209-1213.

Halstead BW. 1988. Poisonous and Venomous Marine Animals of the World. Princeton, NJ:Darwin Press.

National Marine Fisheries Service. 2003. Fisheries of the United States 2002. Silver Spring, MD:National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Science and Technology, Fisheries Statistics and Economics Division. Available: fus/current/index.html [accessed 17 May 2004].

Srinivas H. 1999. Coastal Area Management: Integrating Environmental Objectives into Harbour Planning. Available: [accessed 17 May 2004].

United Nations Population Division. 2002. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2001 Revision. New York, NY:United Nations. Available: publications/wup2001/WUP2g01 report.htm [accessed 17 May 2004].

U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. 2004. Preliminary Report of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. Governors' Draft. Washington, DC:U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. Available: http://www.eceancommission.gev/[accessed 17 May 2004].

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1994. Report to Congress on Inventory of 403(c) Ocean Discharges. Washington, DC:U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Van Dolah FM. 2000. Marine algal toxins: origins, health effects, and their increased occurrence. Environ Health Perspect 108(suppl 1):133-141.

Frederick L. Tyson


National Institutes of Health

Department of Health and Human Services

Research Triangle Park, North Carolina


Donald L. Rice

Chemical Oceanography Program

Division of Ocean Sciences

National Science Foundation

Arlington, Virginia

Alien Dearry


National Institutes of Health

Department of Health and Human Services

Research Triangle Park, North Carolina

Frederick L. Tyson is program administrator for the Centers for Oceans and Human Health, Division of Extramural Research and Training, NIEHS.

Donald L. Rice is director of the Chemical Oceanography Program, Division of Ocean Sciences, National Science Foundation, and associate editor of the Journal of Marine Research.

Allen Dearry is associate director oft he Division of Research Coordination, Planning, and Translation, NIEHS.
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Title Annotation:Guest Editorial
Author:Dearry, Allen
Publication:Environmental Health Perspectives
Date:Jun 1, 2004
Previous Article:The oceans and human health.
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