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Substance in crude oil shown to harm fish; could affect human health

A Stanford-led research team has identified a substance in oil that appears to be responsible for the irregular, weak heart contractions seen in fish exposed to crude oil spills.

This chemical is bad news for fish in oil-contaminated waters, but it can also be bad news for humans. Here’s why: Tuna, mammals and birds regulate heart cell activity using a similar mechanism. So, a chemical that affects this heart mechanism in tuna is likely to have similar effects in the hearts of mammals and birds.

From the Stanford News story:

'The mechanism which alters cardiac function in fish and the protein that phenanthrene targets – the ion channel responsible for potassium movement from the cell – is also present in humans,' said Fabien Brette, a research associate at Stanford University at the time of the study and co-lead author of the current paper. 'What we measured on fish cardiac cells can occur on human cardiac cells and this could mean risk of sudden death.'

Luckily the chemical is only in the ocean, right? Nope. The chemical the research team identified in oil, a type of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon known as phenanthrene, is also plentiful in stormwater runoff, contaminated soil from industrial sites and air pollution.

Air pollution has been linked to cardiac distress in people, and this study suggests that phenanthrene exposure may be to blame:

'Phenanthrene has the properties of many drugs that cause abnormal heart rhythms as serious and potentially life-threatening side effects,' said John Incardona, a developmental biologist with the NOAA Fisheries Ecotoxicology Program in Seattle. 'This means that people in urbanized areas with high traffic density are potentially breathing something that has the same properties.'

This sounds pretty grim, but there is an upside. This new understanding of how phenanthrene can affect heart function and human health "should raise global interests in this important environmental pollutant," the researchers say.

Previously: Filtering pollution one nostril at a timeStudy shows air pollution may increase heart attack risk more than drug use and Industrial pollutants find their way into the eggs of free-range hens
Photo by Kelly The Deluded

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