The Deepwater Horizon (DH) oil spill in 2010 was by far the largest of its kind in US waters. An inextinguishable fire killed 11 workers on the rig, and 4.9 million barrels’ worth of oil escaped into the Gulf of Mexico. BP was fined $18.7 billion for malpractice – the largest corporate settlement in American history.
The catastrophe caused untold havoc to regional wildlife, including – as a new study in Scientific Reports found – corrupting the hearts of fish. This is sad enough on its own, but it turns out that the same type of pollution might be affecting humans too.
A team from the University of Manchester painstakingly analyzed the effects of crude oil on the cardiovascular systems of species endemic to the Gulf of Mexico, and found that a specific compound was responsible for disrupting and damaging heart functioning.
“These open ocean fish are hard to study in captivity, but understanding what component of the Deepwater Horizon disaster oil negatively affected the heart is really important,” study co-author Dr Holly Shiels, a senior lecturer in animal physiology at the University of Manchester, said in a statement. “It could help us distinguish the cardiotoxic potential of environmental catastrophes.”
Although this identification is important in marine biology terms, it turns out that this particular hydrocarbon – phenanthrene – also negatively affects all vertebrates the same way, including humans. This means that if we ate enough phenanthrene-containing fish, for example, our tickers’ rhythm or resilience could be in trouble.
The compound affects all vertebrates' hearts, including humans. Leonardo Gonzalez/Shutterstock
As the authors of the study also point out, DH-afflicted fish are not the only source of this heart-harming hydrocarbon available to us. Phenanthrene is often a common component of plenty of petrol varieties used in most forms of ground-based transportation, including cars, motorbikes, buses, and so on.
Worryingly, air pollution is at an all-time high. Tens of millions of people are dying from respiratory or cardiovascular illness linked to this unfortunate phenomenon every single year. Those living near busy roads are much more likely to have dementia in later life.
Identifying phenanthrene as a “major worldwide cause of vertebrate cardiac dysfunction” – as the authors note in their paper – is a welcome step in identifying the most dangerous aspects of pollution. Still, unless anything is done to stem the tide of oil spills and stamp out the horrifying scale of contemporary air pollution, this won’t mean anything at all.
If anything, this study underlines the fact that we are not segregated from the environment. What’s bad for it is bad for us, and that’s all there is to it. There’s no escaping that fact.