Joint Institute Unites Medical and Marine Scientists to Improve Health of Gulf Coastal Populations

(March 19, 2019) – As red tide devastated marine life and closed beaches on the Florida Gulf Coast, some experienced the impact from the massive algal bloom by way of respiratory ailments and emergency room visits. This is just one of many examples of how the environmental well-being of oceans can impact the health of human populations.

This intricate connection is the theme of the Ocean and Human Health Workshop to be held at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital on Wednesday, March 27. The free public workshop will bring together marine scientists and public health officials to discuss the latest issues involving the Gulf of Mexico and how to coordinate data across the health-marine divide to better prepare coastal populations for events such as red tide outbreaks.

“The Gulf is the lifeblood of the Tampa Bay area, for recreation, for energy, for transportation, and it is time for us to better understand the connections of how the health of the Gulf is impacting the growing community around it,” said Bill Hogarth, former Dean of the USF College of Marine Science and Chairman of the Joint Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at USF St. Petersburg.

The workshop, which is organized by the Joint Institute, has three main goals. The first is to create greater public awareness on how deteriorating ocean health, from pollution to climate change, can lead to health issues or the spread of infectious diseases. Secondly, it is to get health officials and marine scientists in the same room talking and connecting their data.

“Scientists who study the oceans and those who study human health don’t really speak the same language,” said Larry McKinney, Executive Director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Texas. “Let’s bring those scientists together and have a common dialect and begin working on what we know and don’t and where to collaborate.”

Finally, the Joint Institute hopes to identify key areas for future research that discern how coastal population health is affected by environmental impacts to the Gulf, and then facilitate funding for programs that combine human health and marine science.

“If we can make a connection to where we have scientists and officials who study respiratory issues working with those studying harmful algal blooms and what triggers them, we can better prepare emergency rooms and alert doctors that conditions for red tide are forming,” added McKinney.

A highlight will be a presentation on the findings and lessons from a decade of research on the effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which resulted in 4.9 million barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. Composed of scientists throughout the region, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) was set up to study the ecosystem impact of the largest marine oil spill in history and the chemical dispersants used to break it up.

“We want to pass on what we learned and how we learned it,” said Chuck Wilson, Chief Scientific Officer for GoMRI in Louisiana.

Wilson will touch on findings showing how to infer effects of the oil spill on people from what has been learned about marine life, such as respiratory issues in dolphins that parallel problems exhibited by Coast Guard employees who responded to the spill. He will also detail how states and agencies could utilize models already developed to answer new ocean and human health questions. For example, GoMRI used lab models for measuring the effects of cigarette smoke inhalation to study the impacts of oil droplets in the air on human lungs.

“One of the critical things we found out through this massive research endeavor is that by funding an organized collection of scientists that can work across disciplines, you can replicate ways to answer very different questions,” said Wilson. “We didn’t anticipate our researchers would study the human health impacts of oil droplets that went into the air and stayed there, but that is eventually where good science led.”

More people live in coastal areas than ever before. Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s population live in counties directly on a shoreline and that number is expected to grow in the future, according to NOAA. Understanding the factors and extent that ocean health impacts human communities has never been as relevant.

“We want this workshop to be a dialogue between health and marine scientists and most importantly with an engaged public,” said Hogarth.

USF St. Petersburg created the Joint Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies last year to foster collaboration among scholars, scientists, students and citizens in order to preserve and promote the Gulf of Mexico and recognize its vital importance to the State of Florida.

The Oceans and Human Health Workshop takes place from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on March 27 in the Research and Education Building Auditorium of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. This event is free and open to the public.  The agenda and RSVP are available at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/oceans-and-human-health-workshop-registration-56516894553.