All-Female Crew Sails The Atlantic To Study Women’s Health

Sep 19, 2019

A Long Island native will set sail across the Atlantic Ocean in October with an all-female crew of 11 to study the impact that plastic pollutants have on women’s health. 

Erica Cirino is an environmental journalist and has done research on plastics at Roskilde University in Copenhagen, Denmark. She will join the second leg of an all-women sailing voyage across the world called eXXpedition

She will climb aboard in Azores and sail to Antigua next month. 

Erica, thank you for joining All Things ConsideredWhy is it an all-female crew? 

So, typically in the field of science, women have been underrepresented in terms of getting jobs and also in terms of studying women’s health. The typical human subject that is studied in many scientific papers about toxicity and health is a 150-pound male. And so that kind of reference point doesn’t really work when trying to understand how toxins impact a woman’s body. So this trip is kind of bringing attention to that and also hopefully uncovering some new information that we can use.   

How do plastic pollutants affect the bodies of women differently from men?

Well, there are many different chemicals that plastic can pick up, but right now, a big concern are endocrine disruptors, which are kind of chemicals that can affect the way hormones in your body work and many of these endocrine disruptors affect the way estrogen works. So estrogen, obviously, affects women more than men because we rely on it for reproduction and just so our bodies can function correctly. So, that is a big concern that these chemicals in plastic would affect our reproductive abilities and also could affect obesity, different autoimmune conditions, things like that. So, we’re trying to uncover more because we just scratched the surface.

And we’re talking about plastic bottles, plastic straws, plastic bags, all of those items we’re trying to get rid of these days?

Exactly. And the remarkable thing is that all these products are made, kind of manufactured, in different ways, different chemicals might be added to different types of items to give them certain properties that make them useful. So, plastic bottles are lightweight, hard plastic containers can maybe go in the microwave and whatnot, but they all have different properties and different chemicals that can give them those properties, and that’s what we’re mainly concerned about.

What do you hope to find on your voyage?

I’ve been sailing on these trips various times and every time I learn something new and unexpected, so I just go into it with an open mind and enjoy the sea and connect to my crewmembers. 

What could that mean for the health and wellbeing of Long Island Sound and our coastal communities?

Coastal communities are highly impacted by plastic, so a lot of it washes up on the shorelines. Not only that, but we do a lot of recreation in the waters and we go fishing in these waters, and what I’ve seen and witnessed firsthand all across the world is that these plastics are just breaking up in tiny pieces called microplastic. And these microplastics get into bodies of fish and then we eat the fish and it becomes a kind of a cascade effect of plastic ingestion. So that’s something we’re seeing right now on Long Island Sound and across the world. So, that’s a major concern I would say.

Those microplastics, those are the little plastic balls that you see in like facial cleansers, that are supposedly ingredients that help exfoliate the skin? 

Exactly. Those are actually called microbeads. In the U.S., we’ve banned them but all across the world, it’s inconsistent whether or not they’ve been banned. So they keep showing on our water supply, so in the oceans. We’re also talking about just everyday plastic items, because every piece of plastic, it will never degrade fully, it will just break up into smaller pieces, so this is what we consider microplastic, these little bits. A plastic bottle will turn into an infinite number of pieces of microplastic.

Erica Cirino sets sail with the all-women sailing voyage, eXXpedition, across the Atlantic in October to study pollution and human health. Thank you for joining All Things Considered, and good luck.