October 15, 2012
2012 Next List

Susan Shaw fights pollutants to keep Maine's coast open for business

Susan Shaw, founder and executive director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, searches for birds and seals on Hog Island, near Brooklin

VIEW: Susan Shaw surveys the sea

Maine Environmental Research Institute

Address: 55 Main St., Blue Hill

Executive director: Susan Shaw

Founded: 1990

Employees: 7

Services: Research on impact of pollutants on marine environments

2012 budget: $700,000-$800,000

Contact: 374-2135

After researching ocean contaminants for almost 20 years, Susan Shaw has become more and more alarmed over the rise in pollution.

"The oceans are at a tipping point, and we need to do something to stop the rising toxicity in the sea," says Shaw, director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, which she founded in 1990. And that is especially important for Maine, which she says is a bellwether state for ocean health, where people from all walks of life rely on the sea for everything from fishing to recreation.

For Shaw, preventing pollution, particularly from flame-retardant chemicals, has become a life focus. This fall, she and her colleagues will publish what she says is the first study to examine how brominated flame retardants in household materials such as beds and pillows endanger the health of U.S. firefighters. The study, to appear mid-October in the journal Chemosphere, shows that exposure to such chemicals during firefighting may carry even higher risks for cancer and other health problems than previously thought.

"There is no doubt that firefighting is a dangerous occupation. What we have shown here points to the possible link between firefighting and cancer," she says. Although it was a small pilot study of 12 San Francisco firefighters, she expects federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to follow up with a large study on thousands of people.

"Firefighters are like a sentinel species [which indicates the health of an environment]," says Shaw. "They are exposed to chemicals we don't need in our furniture."

But consumers also inhale bromides through indoor pollutants as foam breaks down in sofas, for example. Pets and children are particularly susceptible, she says, because they are close to dust on the ground.

MERI also plans to launch the Stop Toxic Ocean Pollution campaign later this fall with several institutional partners. MERI's priorities are to stop toxic chemicals from flowing into the sea, including flame retardants, plastics and microplastics, as well as chemical dispersants for oil spills and boat yard effluent. The focus will be on research, consumer education and advocacy with legislators and policymakers.

"If you have chemicals in your mattress or computer, what can you do?" she says about the need to educate consumers. "Most people are exposed to toxic chemicals in their lives. People need to know we have these problems and can do something about them." For instance, consumers can seek out furniture or computers made by companies that do not use toxic compounds, she says.

Shaw traces her enthusiasm for environmental protection back to Rachel Carson, who wrote much of her groundbreaking book on pesticides, "Silent Spring," in the Boothbay Harbor area. That book is credited by many with starting the environmental movement.

"I'm very inspired to do something using Maine as a base on the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's book," says Shaw, who is evolving to take more of an advocacy role. "I was in a whole different field when Rachel Carson started the environmental movement in the '70s. I had a master of fine arts in film and was a documentary filmmaker. 'Silent Spring' completely got my attention, and I decided to make that my field of work."

Adds Shaw, "Carson was so connected with the Maine coast, which is vital to our economy as it crosses over many social-economic sectors. It affects everyone from every walk of life from people clamming to sailing."

Shaw also has a PhD in public health/environmental health sciences from Columbia University, where she focused on the effects of toxic chemicals in people and animals. She also is a fellow of the Explorers Club, which promotes scientific exploration and whose members included Sir Edmund Hillary, Jane Goodall and Neil Armstrong.

One of the largest long-term projects Shaw has led at MERI is "seals as sentinels," launched in 2000 to examine the levels, effects and trends of toxic environmental contaminants in harbor seals and their prey fish. Her pioneering work is credited with influencing policy decisions in the United States and abroad, including the Maine Legislature's decision to ban the neurotoxic flame retardant Deca, and the subsequent U.S. phase-out of the chemical.

Shaw says MERI's business model contributes to saving the environment for fishing, logging, farming, environmental research and tourism, which in turn creates an economic impact. One example is tracking sea temperature, which is rising in the midcoast area, and trying to get a handle on the trends in coastal waters. MERI also monitors 40 sites in Blue Hill Bay for acidification, which can result in the disappearance of clams in acidic mud.

"Maine's character and the beauty of its 3,500 islands make it a special and inspiring place," she says.

When the STOP campaign gains momentum, MERI plans to hire at least 10 people, more than double the seven current full-time staff. Most hires will be in Maine over the next three years. During that time, she also plans to raise $5 million for MERI, to expand its current annual budget of $750,000-$800,000.

"MERI is now at a taking off place," she says. "And STOP could put Maine on the map."

Lori Valigra, a writer based in Harrison, can be reached at

Read more

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