Environmental engineer Judith Perlinger studies the transport of organic pollutants in the environment at Michigan Technological University. Specifically, she studies what happens as contaminants move between the air and water—and that matters all the way down to the deepest parts of the ocean.
“These deep sea trenches were previously thought to be pristine because they are so remote," Perlinger says, "But they're not—the long-range atmospheric and oceanic transport, and association with particulate matter and carrion sinking through the water column, brings pollutants to great depths."
A new study documents high concentrations of chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) compounds have been found in high concentrations in amphipods in the Mariana Trench, which is 11 km deep, and the Kermadec Trench, which is 10 km deep. PCB concentrations in amphipods in the Mariana Trench were higher than those found in the Kermadec Trench. While Perlinger says the reasons for this concentration difference are speculative, she agrees with the authors that one possible explanation is that the Mariana Trench lies below the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The amphipods may consume plastic particles that sink from the patch that contain the PCBs in addition to carrion. Another explanation Perlinger points to is that surface-derived animals over the Mariana Trench may be higher in concentration than those over the Kermadec Trench. When these surface-derived animals die, their carrion, which the organisms in the Mariana Trench consume, is also higher in concentration than such carrion falling into the Kermadec Trench.
As an expert in how organic contaminants move through the environment, Perlinger can help offer explanations of the process that could be driving deep sea pollution.
Perlinger is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Tech and her research focuses on environmental organic chemistry. In addition to the research she has published and presented in the scientific community, she has a particular interest in sustainability and interdisciplinary problem-solving. Perlinger recently served as a co-chair on the International Association for Great Lakes Research Conference Session "When Can We Eat the Fish?" that addressed regional contamination and native tribes' concerns about fishing.