All gummed up – chew on that IMO!

By Lusheeta (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Lusheeta (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
All those auks killed off the south coast of England over the last week or so have been killed by polyisobutene (or PIB) according to analyses done by scientists at the University of Plymouth and confirmed by the Environment Agency, says the RSPB.

PIB is currently given one of the lowest hazard classifications under MARPOL [category Z, substances presenting a minor hazard to either marine resources or human health and therefore justifying less stringent restrictions on the quality and quantity of discharge into the marine environment].

The RSPB believes the current classification does not take proper account of the impact on marine wildlife when PIB mixes with sea water – the effects of PIB are only tested under laboratory conditions which do not take into account harmful changes to seabirds and the marine environment when mixed with sea water.  As a result, PIB can still legally be dumped into the sea when vessels wash out their tanks.

Alec Taylor, the RSPB’s Marine Policy Officer, said: “Given that this substance is used for making chewing gum, adhesive tape and cosmetics, millions of people safely come into contact with it every day. However, it’s when it mixes with sea water that this chemical can become lethal for seabirds, covering them in a sticky goo, and preventing them from flying, feeding and ultimately surviving.”

So it seems that these seabird deaths are possibly caused by perfectly legal actions – a change in regulations needed to stop this happening again?

 

Media coverage: Guardian, BBC Channel 4, Independent, Huffington Post.

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8 Replies to “All gummed up – chew on that IMO!”

  1. Seems bizarre that Catgory Z should apply to 'noxious liquid substances' but permit them to be discharged overboard.
    The fact that washing out tanks of some 'noxious liquid chemical' substances is permitted under MARPOL Annex II indicates that we still have the wrong attitude to the seas as convenient dust-bins for our waste products. I believe all tank washings should be transferred to slop tanks and discharged ashore for appropriate safe disposal and MARPOL should be amended to enforce this.

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  2. I thought you might be interested to know that this is not the first time this substance has been implicated in a seabird incident. I found reference to polyisobutene on the Sea Alarm website reporting an incident in the Netherlands in 2010. No details are given of the number of birds involved.

    http://www.sea-alarm.org/?p=2918

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    1. Alister - the BBC reports Prof Steve Rowland as being aware of a previous incident on in 1994
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-21350625

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      1. Thanks I missed that. I found the Dutch incident when I googled the structure of polyisobutene.

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  3. Here we go again...

    Alistair Burt MP
    House of Commons
    London
    SW1A 0AA

    By Email

    Dear Mr Burt

    I write today concerning the recent pollution incident along the south coast, widely reported, which has seen thousands of seabirds washed to shore between Cornwall and West Sussex covered in a sticky oil-like substance. It is feared thousands more birds have died out at sea and the effects on the wider marine environment are as yet unknown, and could be still more serious:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-21304142

    I understand he substance causing the deaths has now been identified as polyisobutene (PIB), by scientists at the University of Plymouth from samples taken from seabirds washed up along the south-west coast of England. This fits with analysis done separately by the Environment Agency. PIB is believed to have been responsible for over 4,000 seabird deaths in at least four incidents around European coasts in recent years, yet is currently given one of the lowest hazard classifications under The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships:
    http://www.imo.org/about/conventions/listofconventions/pages/international-convention-for-the-prevention-of-pollution-from-ships-%28marpol%29.aspx

    The RSPB has called for tighter international regulations to prevent this substance from being released into our seas. Evidence now available raises serious questions about the validity of this classification, as the effects of the chemical are only tested under laboratory conditions which do not take into account harmful effects on seabirds and the marine environment when it mixes with seawater. As a result, PIB can still legally be dumped into the sea when vessels wash out their tanks.

    Alec Taylor, the RSPB's Marine Policy Officer, has said: 'Given that this substance is used for making chewing gum, adhesive tape and cosmetics, millions of people safely come into contact with it every day. However, it's when it mixes with seawater that this chemical can become lethal for seabirds, covering them in a sticky goo, and preventing them from flying, feeding and ultimately surviving.'

    I believe the UK government needs to call on the International Maritime Organisation to urgently review the hazard classification of PIB, and implement regulations designed to prevent discharge of this substance at sea and further tragic and wholly avoidable incidents like the one just witnessed. The purpose of writing to you today is to urge you please to make representations to the UK government to do so.

    The current government has stated it's commitment to be the first to leave the environment in a better state than when it came to office. The seas around the UK's coasts are an important part of that environment and are currently under-protected as this example shows. For over a decade, many organisations and hundreds of thousands of people supported the campaign to get comprehensive legislation for the marine environment. This ultimately received cross-party support and led to the passing of the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009). The expectation was that this would lead to the establishment of an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas. Yet, of 127 sites proposed for protection, only ‘up to’ 31 are recommended for designation in 2013, and there appears to be no clear commitment to any further rounds of designation:
    http://www.defra.gov.uk/news/2012/12/13/marine-conservations-zones/

    The government’s commitment to achieve a ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas now looks undeliverable. We urgently need ministers to designate further marine protected areas and to give proper protection to seabirds and other ‘mobile species’.

    Yours sincerely

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  4. Shows our appalling attitude to wildlife and the sea, Jonathan is absolutely right all tank washes should be treated ashore, the sea is not a dustbin. Have these people no conscience or morality. I try to treat all things and people as well as possible based on the lakota idea that we are all in some way related, if only by sharing the same space (even grouse moor owners and their employees). Sadly there are others out there who think differently.
    We need to change the rules for this and almost every other thing currently allowed to be washed into the sea.

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