Turtles of the Great Barrier Reef are ingesting dangerous chemicals

By Angela Heathcote 5 June 2017
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Researchers have found that coastal turtles are ingesting dangerous industrial and agricultural chemicals, posing yet another threat to Great Barrier Reef turtle populations.

TURTLES ON THE GREAT BARRIER REEF (GBR) are ingesting human heart and gout medications, herbicides, pesticides, metals and industrial chemicals, resulting in inflammation and liver dysfunction. These are among the alarming findings of a new Queensland University study, which warns these pollutants are an added threat to the survival of the marine reptiles.

The chemicals were found in the blood of a group of turtles from two coastal locations— Cleveland Bay and Upstart Bay, both off Townsville. The blood samples were compared to turtles whose habitats are far more remote, revealing that coastal populations of sea turtles are at greater risk because of their radius to human activity.

The researchers used a ‘non-target screening technique.’ Dr Amy Heffernan, a research chemist who led the study, told Australian Geographic that by using this technique they were able to search the turtles’ blood for as many chemicals as possible.

“A normal environmental monitoring study might say I want to look at chemicals x, y and z. You go out and collect your samples at the lab and you look for those three chemicals,” she explained. “What we did was the opposite, we didn’t define anything beforehand. We wanted to look at everything. We are going to take the samples and screen them for as many different chemicals as we can possibly find.

“This is really at the cutting edge of environmental science.”

As for how we might improve the water quality, Amy says it’s easier said than done.

“We need to prevent run off which is wear the bulk of these chemicals would be coming from. That means managing storm water and any flow that you might see from farming and industrial activity and making sure that waste product is really carefully managed whether it’s released into the environment deliberately or accidentally.”

This isn’t the first time that harmful chemicals have been found in the blood of turtles living in the GBR. Last year, another Queensland University study found that increased levels of cobalt were affecting the marine animals’ health, increasing inflammation of internal organs.

“The biggest thing to take home from this study is that the chemicals that we’re using in everyday life have to end up somewhere and it doesn’t matter if we’re washing them down the sink or they’re used in farming or another industry,” Amy said. “Most of the time it washes into our water supply and it ends up in the ocean and in our marine life. This is something we need to be aware of, as well as manage this environmental risk responsibly.”

In addition to monitoring the health of turtles, Amy said future research will focus on using turtles to monitor the health of the whole GBR.

“We want to look at using the turtles to bio-monitor the health of the reef,” she explained.

“By looking at the health of the turtles themselves we can then get an indication of the health of the environment, including the reef.”