From Alaska to Southern California, sea stars (or as I call them, starfish. But scientists like to point out they’re not fish, ergo: “sea stars”) are dying by the millions. Drew Harvell, a marine epidemiologist at Cornell University, calls it the largest documented marine epidemic in human history. The disease deflates sea stars, causing them to become weak, lose limbs and develop lesions that eat through their entire bodies – or simply disintegrate into bacterial goop within days.
Two affected species – sunflower and ochre stars – are “keystone species” in their respective habitats. That is, they are species that have disproportionately large impacts on their ecosystems, and they fill a vital niche. The term was coined 45 years ago by zoology professor Robert Paine, of the University of Washington, specifically to describe the importance of the ochre star in the Pacific Northwest. They are a top predator, eating mussels, barnacles and sea snails.
“This is the species that defined the term, which is a central concept in ecological theory,” explained Drew Harvell. “We do expect the impact to be dramatic. And to take away not just one, but both of these keystone species in adjoining ecosystems? It’s going to have a big effect.”
Nobody knows why the sea stars are dying. Theories have run from waterborne pathogens or other disease agents, manmade chemicals, ocean acidification, wastewater discharge or warming oceans. There is even a contingent that thinks the Fukushima nuclear meltdown is the cause. The newest theory is that they’re being infected with a disease that can more easily grow in the Pacific Ocean thanks to warming waters, which provide a better place for the disease organisms to multiply. According to the scientists, the warmer waters also compromises the immune systems of the sea stars, allowing them to be more susceptible to the disease.
I’m sure you know where I’m going with this: like Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) of honeybees, the sea star wasting syndrome is beyond the range of what we expect in a healthy ecosystem. Most scientists have concurred that the CCD was caused by a variety of environmental stresses (malnutrition, pathogens, mites, pesticides, radiation from cell phones and other man made devices, as well as genetically modified crops with pest control characteristics) which increased stress and reduced the immune systems of the honeybees.
And though bees and sea stars are both rather small and seem insignificant, they are both essential components of our ecosystem. Without bees, for example, there would be significantly less pollination, which would result in limited plant growth and lower food supplies. According to Dr. Albert Einstein, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination…no more men”. It’s a bit early to assess the impact of the loss of sea stars, but according to Carol Blanchette, a research biologist at University of California Santa Barbara, “losing a predator like that is bound to have some pretty serious ecological consequences and we really don’t know exactly how the system is going to look but we’re quite certain that it’s going to have an impact.”
I read a book many years ago about time travelers who went to the distant past. One of them stepped on an insect. When they returned to their own time, everything had changed. Ecologists tell us that everything is connected to everything else – ecosystems are complex and interconnected. “The system,” Barry Commoner writes, “is stabilized by its dynamic self-compensating properties; these same properties, if overstressed, can lead to a dramatic collapse.” Further, “the ecological system is an amplifier, so that a small perturbation in one place may have large, distant, long-delayed effects elsewhere.”
So how does the textile industry figure into this equation? Answer: the textile industry pollutes our water. In fact, some sources put it as the leading industrial polluter of water on the planet. It takes about 505 gallons of water to produce one pair of Levi’s 501 jeans. Imagine how much water is used every day by textile mills worldwide. The actual amount of water used is not really the point, in my opinion. What matters is that the water used by the textile industry is not “cleaned up” before they return it to our ecosystem. The textile industry’s chemically infused effluent – filled with PBDEs, phthalates, organochlorines, lead and a host of other chemicals that have been proven to cause a variety of human health issues – is routinely dumped into our waterways untreated. And we are all downstream.
Maude Barlow, in her book, Blue Covenant  argues that water is not a commercial good but rather a human right and a public trust. She shares these startling facts about water during her presentations:
- Every 8 seconds a child dies from drinking dirty water.
- 50% of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by people who have contracted waterborne diseases.
- The World Health Organization says contaminated water is the cause of 80% of all sickness and disease worldwide.
- 9 countries control 60% of the world’s available freshwater.
- In China, 80% of all major rivers are so polluted they don’t support aquatic life at all.
This year’s drought in the US pointed to a new water related issue, the generation of energy. Power plants are completely dependent on water for cooling and make up about half the water usage in the US. If water levels in the rivers that cool them drop too low, the power plant – already overworked from the heat – won’t be able to draw in enough water. In addition, if the cooling water discharged from a plant raises already-hot river temperatures above certain thresholds, environmental regulations require the plant to shut down.
The textile mills which are polluting our groundwater are using their corporate power to control water they use – and who gives them that right? If we agree that they have the right to use the water, shouldn’t they also have an obligation to return the water in its unpolluted state? Ms. Barlow and others around the world are calling for a UN covenant to set the framework for water as a social and cultural asset, not an economic commodity, and the legal groundwork for a just system of distribution.
Please ask whether the fabric you buy has been produced in a mill which treats its wastewater. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) assures consumers that the mill which produced the fabric has treated its wastewater, but so far it is the only third party certification with that requirement as a standard. Oeko Tex 1000 has also included that in its requirements, however I have never seen an Oeko Tex 1000 certification – most fabrics are simply Oeko Tex certified. Also look into the Greenpeace Detox challenge, which is working to “expose the direct links between global clothing brands, their suppliers, and toxic water pollution around the world.” Click here for more information.
 Gashler, Krisy, “Sea star wasting devastates Pacific Coast species”, Cornell Chronicle, Feb 17, 2014
 Commoner, Barry; “The Closing Circle: Nature, Man and Technology”, Random House, October 1971
 Alter, Alexandra, “Yet Another Footprint to Worry About: Water”, The Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2009.
 Barlow, Maude; “Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water”, The New Press, 2008.
 WBCSD, Facts and Trends: Water (version 2), 2009.
 Reardon, Sara, “Water shortages hit US power supply”, New Scientist, 20 August 2012.