Protect your eyes!

In May, Lily’s left eye and then her right eye appeared bloodshot. At first I put it down to the use of sunscreen. The strong summer sun means the girls and I were slapping on sun protection every time we go out walking, swimming or are doing outdoor chores. But when I thought about it, I realised that the redness in Lily’s eyes was not the same as that caused by sunscreen. For one, the sunscreen causes a general redness, like you get after swimming in a chlorinated swimming pool. Lily’s eyes had triangular redness starting at a point at her tear duct near her nose and fanning out to her iris. Lily, being at an age when she is conscious of her appearance, asked me frequently about this redness and when it would go away.

Her left eye gradually cleared of any redness, but then she developed it in her right eye. Then one day, seeing her in a different light, I noticed bumps on the edge of her iris, where the redness ended. There were two of these little bumps, and they looked liked blisters. She didn’t complain of any pain, but said her eyes often felt dry. I took her to the doctor the next day.

The doctor immediately diagnosed pterygium, also known as ‘surfer’s eye’.  The redness was the immediately recognisable first symptom of tissue growth on the surface of the eyeball. The bumps on the edge of the iris are lesions and the growth and lesions may continue to grow until they eventually cover the pupil, leading to blurred vision, astigmatism and corneal scarring. It can affect one or both eyes. Laser surgery and replacement of eye tissue with amniotic membrane are two treatments, although these treatments are only necessary if vision becomes affected.

The cause is simple – excessive exposure to sun, wind and sand. Well, living the lifestyle we do, on a boat, in countries at lower latitudes, spending lots of time on beaches, my children are prime candidates for such eye damage. The problem is most common among people who live closer to the equator and among men aged 20 to 40 (because they are the ones who spend more time out of doors).

Our mission now is to prevent Lily’s pterygium from getting worse. The doctor prescribed the use of artificial tears (eye drops) and the wearing of sunglasses and a sunhat when outside. After using the eye drops for a couple of days the redness had disappeared and the doctor advised using the eye drops whenever the redness recurs. Julian, down in Vila Real a couple of days later, bought both girls good quality polarising sunglasses that provide both UVA and UVB protection. Now we insist they both wear sunglasses and sunhats when out during the day. Although Lily was quite upset by it all at first, she has grown used to wearing her sunglasses now, especially because Dad bought her such cool ones!

I wanted to share this as a word of warning. No matter where you live, but particularly if you live in a part of the world that gets prolonged and strong sunlight, protect your eyes and the eyes of your loved ones. Lily’s eye damage is the latest in a line of northern Europeans living here on the river dealing with the consequences of sun damage. Pre-cancerous moles and melanomas seem to be on the rise these days amongst our friends.

Also, a word of warning about the type of sunglasses you buy. Dark lenses don’t necessarily mean sun protection. Make sure your glasses and your kids’ glasses provide UVA and UVB protection. Dark lenses dilate the pupil and allow more light in, and without ultraviolet protection this leads to even greater sun damage. And, if like me, you wear glasses for short sightedness, pay that extra £10 on your new prescription for the ultraviolet filter.

We will continue to enjoy living in such a sun-kissed part of the world, but from now on we will do so with greater care, not just for our skin, but for our eyes too.



Picking through the plastic

From two miles off shore the narrow strip of golden sandy beach that runs the length of the east coast of the Tanger Peninsula glistens in the sunshine. It beckon to me, inviting me to walk its length, dip my feet into its azure waters. We drop the sails and motor into Marina Smir. While Julian takes our documents to the marina authorities, Lily, Katie and I walk to the wall separating the marina from the beach and look south along the endless sand. From here the beauty of the golden sand is littered with the detritus of human consumption. Plastic drinks bottles are the most obvious. But there is other plastic waste too – lengths of nylon fishing net, plastic bags, bits of rope. There is a beach hut, that in high season sells soft drinks and snacks and hires out sun loungers and jet skis. The man working there is raking sections of beach, creating mounds of rubbish here and there that I presume will be removed later on.

DSCI0238Two days later, the girls and I go to the beach for the afternoon. I am further appalled by the rubbish. I think of the article I have recently read, and briefly mentioned in an earlier blog, about the amount of plastic in the Mediterranean. According to research carried out by Andres Cozar and colleagues, there are around one thousand tonnes of plastic floating on the Mediterranean. 80% of this is micro-plastic, pieces of plastic 5mm or less.

The impact of these plastics is varied. The obvious impacts are the slow and painful deaths caused to birds, fish, turtles and cetaceans from eating plastics that they mistake for food. Stomachs get filled with plastic, making it impossible to eat, and animals die slowly from starvation. See Chris Jordan’s plastics photos here.The less obvious impact is from the consumption of micro-plastics which can pass through the digestive system, and which deposit toxins in the lining of the gut, leading to cancers and other diseases. These toxins get passed on from prey to predator through the food chain, and may well end up in our own bodies, as we dine on seemingly healthy seafood. Such plastics have been found in oysters and mussels growing in northern Europe.

DSCI0252I take some photos of the plastics on the beach and notice that drinking yogurt, Coke and mineral water bottles are by far the biggest offenders on this beach. This litter troubles me. It is one thing to teach my children not to litter and to be careful in their use of plastics. It is quite another to sit on a beach, relaxing and reading my book, while not doing anything about the litter all around me.

DSCI0254The next day the girls and I go back to the beach again, this time on a clean up mission. It is an impossible task, so I set us a goal. We will try to pick up as much litter as we can in the small stretch of beach along the tidal zone between the point where we enter from the marina and the point where we sat and played yesterday. It’s an area about 200 metres in length and 5 metres in width. I figure that the plastics in the tidal zone are the ones that are of the most immediate threat to sea life. Maybe I’m wrong. I have a couple of heavy duty plastic bin liners. I advise the girls not to pick up anything sharp, made of glass, or that feels like it might cut or harm them.

Among the plastic rubbish we find are razors, pens, plastic forks, tampon applicators, nappies, condoms, sanitary towels, fishing line, dolls’ limbs, chocolate wrappers, drink cartons, motor oil cans, bucket lids, shoes, sandals, flip-flops, beach balls, plastic bags, plastic flowers, plastic grass, sun lounger arm rests, sun glasses and of course the ubiquitous plastic bottles. In less than half an hour we have filled four bin bags with plastic.

Noticing an abundance of plastic bottle caps, I set the girls a challenge to see how many they can find in one minute. I set my watch. They bring me 65 bottle caps. The great irony is that most of these are blue – bottle caps from mineral water bottles, the commercial bottling of water being one of the most unnecessary of neoliberal capitalism’s many successful marketing ploys.

What most disturbs me and stays with me when I get my head down to sand level are the tiny particles of plastic that blend in with the sand. These micro-plastics are too small to pick up, and I can only imagine the mass removal of the top layer of sand could get rid of these. Looking at the sand from the eye level of a turtle or a crab, I see tiny specks of blue, green, red, yellow – plastics that will be in circulation around the Mediterranean for hundreds of years to come.

It would be all too easy to blame Moroccan holiday-makers for their poor attitude to littering, but a map of sea circulation in this western end of the Mediterranean tells a more complex story. The local currents here are circular, running clockwise along the western Costa del Sol in Spain, across the Mediterranean to this east coast of the Tanger Peninsula and back up to the Costa del Sol again. Much of the rubbish on the beach clearly is Moroccan, but given the currents, there is sure to be as much rubbish from the Costa del Sol here as there is Moroccan rubbish in the Costa del Sol. And all that unnecessary throw-away plastic, circulating around this fragile sea, is detrimental to the health of all life – non-human and human, here on the Mediterranean.

It would also be all too easy to put the blame solely on the shoulders of consumers. For this stuff to be consumed, it has to be produced and marketed and distributed to people far from the site of production. The yogurt cartons, soft drinks bottles and motor oil cans of multinational companies nominally from Denmark, the US and the UK carry within them stories of global capitalism and of the marketing of products that are often unnecessary, unhealthy, and hugely damaging to the environment.

And the Mediterranean isn’t the only place. The eastern Pacific gyre is a well-documented plastic patch twice the size of Texas floating in the waters between Hawai’i and California where, for every square mile of ocean there are 46,000 bits of plastic. All over the world there accumulation zones are growing in size. And as these floating plastic islands grow, birds, fish, turtles and cetaceans die slow and painful deaths from starvation or disease.

My children know not to litter. But not littering is not enough. We all need to clean up our act and clean up our oceans, for the sake of everyone – humans and animals.