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14 Women Sailed to Sea to Investigate Plastic's Toxic Impact on Hormones

The all-women Exxpedition mission wants to make the unseen seen, from ocean pollution to women in science.

​Last November, an all-woman team set out to sail the Atlantic, collecting samples of seawater and plastics as they went. They travelled from Lanzarote to Martinique over three weeks, some of them barely having stepped on a boat before.

Their mission, which they named Exxp​edition, was to shine a light on several "unseens": the unseen plastics and chemica​ls polluting the oceans; the unseen women vastly underrepresented in science and adventure; and the unseen research on women-specific diseases, which they feel has a low public profile.

The 14-strong crew recently premiered a documentary based on their adventure, Exxpedition: Making the Unseen Seen.

In a Skype call, the mission's cofounder Emily Penn explained that she has long been interested in plastic pollution in the oceans; she runs Pangaea Expl​oration, the company that owns the Sea Dragon vessel the team used to sample plastics. Her focus has recently shifted specifically to the toxic chemicals associated with plastic pollution. "It's become more apparent that the real problem with these plastics in the ocean is actually the toxics that are adhering to these plastics, which then have the potential to carry into the food chain because these microplastics are being mistaken for food and many other animals in the ocean," she said.

This hypothesis is set out in a N​ature stu​dy by ecologist Chelsea Rochman, which found that fish took on chemical pollutants by ingesting microscopic plastic fragments. There's still further work needed to figure out exactly how plastics and toxic chemicals relate and interact. But it's partly the lack of conclusions on this topic that brought the team and their interests together.

Enter Exxpedition co-creator Lucy Gilliam, who also sails a lot: She trades goods like rum, chocolate, and spices the old-fashioned way in an engine-less cargo boat with her company New Dawn T​raders. When she met Penn three years ago, she was working for the government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on policy issues to do with plastic pollution and endocrine disruptors—chemicals that affect the hormone system.

Image: Exxpedition

Some studies have shown that we have over 700 chemic​als we haven't chosen to put in our bodies, some of which fall into that category. "And we don't know what impact they're having on our health," she said.

These chemicals have a huge impact o​n health, and could have some women-specific effects; again, we don't know exactly how they work or what impact they have (hormone regulation is a complex business), but some suggest they could play a role in things like rising bre​ast cancer rates and puber​ty hitting girls earlier. Then there's the potential of women's health affecting future generations, and Gilliam reckons there's been a disproportionate interest in how chemicals disrupt mal​e fertility. "I think that's partly because the policymakers are men, and they've been focusing on telling that story to try to get them to act," she said.

And so the idea of an all-woman team to tell their side of the story was born. "We really wanted to create a platform to ask these questions, because we don't have the answers," said Gilliam.

Shanley McEntee and Constança Belchior deploy the trawl. Image: Exxpedition

The team conducted a range of different experiments throughout their trip. They regularly collected plastic using a Manta Trawl net, which was capable of gathering fragments above 0.33mm in size. One team member, Jenna Jambeck, was part of a recent Scie​nce study that quantified the amount of plastic in the oceans as 8 million tons. She used nano filters to look at pieces smaller than this and is analysing the results in her lab.

Jambeck also created an app, Marine Debri​s Tracker, which the team used to track the floating plastics they came across and record the results of microplastics in their trawls. Citizen scientists can also use the app to record their own findings in a shared database. Constança Belchior, who was also onboard, led development of Marine Litter W​atch, another app aimed as a tool for people doing beach clean ups.

Swedish scientist Anna Kärrmen's research focuses on toxics, and she carried out a "body burde​n" study on the women around their trip, to identify some of the chemicals the team had in their own blood. She tested for 30 key indicator chemicals to get an idea of what they'd been exposed to. "Twenty-nine of the chemicals between us were inside us," said Penn.

Carrying out the "body burden" test. Image: Exxpedition

She had high levels of flame retardants (PBDEs), which the group hypothesised could be down to time she spent around burning electronics while on a waste management project in the Pacific Islands. Another, older member of the team was upset to find DDE, a breakdown product of notorious pesticide DD​T, which has been banned since the 70s but that she was likely exposed to as a child.

The point of this personal investigation was to show why people should care about issues around these chemicals: They really affect us all.

The Exxpedition crew is now working on related projects such as putting together educational resources and presenting to policymakers. Then later this year it's back on the boat for the next m​ission, which is already recruiting participants. There are certainly less adventurous ways to do science.

xx is a column about occurrences in the world of tech, science, and the internet that have to do with women. It covers the good, the bad, and the otherwise interesting gender developments in the Motherboard world.