Wardrobe Crisis Podcast: Clare Press Meets Emily Penn

This week on the Wardrobe Crisis podcast, Clare Press goes deep on ocean plastic pollution with explorer Emily Penn 

Dangerous chemicals lurk in ocean plastic pollution, says Emily Penn. We don’t know nearly enough about how they behave, and what damage they might be doing to us.

Listen to the full interview on iTunes and below:

Penn is a British sailor and the Mission Director of eXXpedition – a series of all-women voyages around the world exploring the impacts of plastics and toxins in our oceans. In September last year, on World Maritime Day, they launched their latest project: over 24 months, a total of 300 women will sail, on different legs. The first team set sail on October 8th from Plymouth to the Azores. As you read this, another group of fearless female ocean explorers will be en route to Tahiti from Easter Island.

“Women are underrepresented in science and sailing,” says Penn. The ‘xx’ in eXXpedition refers to the female sex chromosome. “The first trip I took around the world, when I was 21, was with a team of mostly men,” she recalls. “It’s good to see more women getting into marine biology and those sorts of subjects today, but typically exploration, sailing, science; so many of the things we’re doing are traditionally [dominated] by men.” According to the UN, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women.

Could plastic pollution also be gender discriminatory? Might women suffer greater, or different effects, from it than men? Remember, pollution can bio-accumulate in the ocean – the fish eat the plastic, and we eat the fish. We’ve long known about the potential for mercury in tuna, for example, and official advice is for pregnant women in particular to avoid it. But of the estimated 700 contaminants in our bodies, many have barely been researched. 

Penn and her team point to “an evidence base building that environmental exposure from chemicals associated with plastics and pollution is impacting women’s health.”

While the citizen science happening on eXXpedition is focused broadly on ocean plastic, and covers its extent and potential sources, the chemical piece stands out. Penn got interested in it after reading a study that revealed the extent to which humans ingest microplastics (from seafood but also drinking water). She decided to have herself tested for 35 toxic chemicals, and found 29 of them present in her blood. These included PFCs and phthalates, she says.  

“You can do a little bit of detective work. One of the chemicals [found was] a brominated compound, BDE-47, which may have come from my exposure to burning electronics in the South Pacific.” Penn once lived in Tonga, where she organised beach clean-ups and witnessed locals burning plastic trash in the absence of systems to dispose of it safely.

She acknowledges that “we will never know the answer” as to how the chemicals entered her system – “we live long lives where we are exposed to so many different things; some of these chemicals might have been inside me before I was born because they were inside my mum.” But she says more research must be done. One thing she knows for sure: “We need to turn off the tap of plastic pollution, and tackle it at its source.”