NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

How to Handle (or Not) Hazardous Marine Debris

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This is a post by Nir Barnea, Washington and Oregon Marine Debris Regional Coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

Marine debris, the perennial, insidious, problem that affects oceans and coasts worldwide, has been impacting U.S. beaches for many years. After the massive tsunami struck the north eastern coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, inflicting tragic loss of human life and massive damage, a variety of items washed out to sea as the water receded. Some debris remained floating, drifting long distances by ocean currents and winds. This influx of marine debris, adding to an already existing problem, has attracted media attention as well as volunteers, who selflessly dedicate their time and energy to clean the beaches they love, picking up and recycling or disposing of plastic bottles and Styrofoam, fishing lines and floats, packaging of all sorts, and other types of debris. Their work is both welcome and appreciated. It is thanks to the thousands of volunteers that marine debris along the U.S. coastline is removed.

But, how can you tell what debris is safe to clean up? Among the thousands of debris items that wash ashore everyday, some can be hazardous.

An obvious example is large oil drums. They can contain flammable or toxic material, should be left alone, not handled or removed, and reported to proper authorities right away.  However, less obvious items, such as plastic boxes or bags with unusual symbols should be handled similarly. Medical waste, for instance, can come in small boxes or packages. A fine-looking glass jar may contain toxic material, and explosive devices may come in different shape and packaging. Often (but not always) hazardous materials are labeled.

Watch out for these specific hazard symbols and labels:

  • Look for the hazard symbols and labels, and don’t touch any item that displays these or similar labels.
  • Don’t pick up or handle any item that you are not sure about.
  • Don’t open bottles, jars, and boxes that could contain hazardous material.
  • Mark the location, warn others, take photos, and call proper authorities, providing exact location description and photos.

The bottom line: Do your part and clean up the beach from marine debris, but be smart and aware of hazardous debris. No debris is worth getting hurt over.

For more information about handling debris, check out our website: http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/japan-tsunami-marine-debris/marine-debris-handling-guidelines

Originally posted on the NOAA Marine Debris Blog.

Author: Office of Response and Restoration

The National Ocean Service's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provides scientific solutions for marine pollution. A part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), OR&R is a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments. These threats could be oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, or marine debris.

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