Will we fight pollution when it comes for our pets?

If Toxic Blobs of Palm Oil Start Killing Our Pets, Will We Finally Fight This Environmental Scourge?

If Toxic Blobs of Palm Oil Start Killing Our Pets, Will We Finally Fight This Environmental Scourge?

The state of the universe.
June 19 2017 5:50 AM

Are Toxic Blobs of Palm Oil Poisoning Our Pets?

The waste product is washing ashore in England, where dogs eat it and occasionally die. What’s a pet owner to do?

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by (https://www.flickr.com/photos/arnehendriks/)Arne Hendriks/Flickr and Ildikó Szabó/Thinkstock.
One dog’s death in 2013 spurred anxiety in pet owners up and down the coasts of England.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Arne Hendriks/Flickr and Ildikó Szabó/Thinkstock.

It’s hard to know where it began. But one of the first recorded cases was in Cornwall, England, on the dog-friendly beach of Long Rock near the Strait of Dover. Coincidentally, this is also the busiest shipping lane in the world. It was October 2013 and the black-haired mini-schnauzer, Zanzi, was out for a walk with his owners. He had meandered away and soon, he was munching on something, owner Lucy Garrett-Peel told the local Cornishman paper days later. His snack was white and waxy and “all over the beach,” said Peel, who raced over to grab it that day. “It was really unpleasant and the smell was like nothing I have ever come across,” she said. It smelled a bit like diesel.

Minutes after gnawing then swallowing the gluey substance, Zanzi got distressed, Peel recalls. The material got caught, and her dog was having trouble breathing. Immediately, Peel rushed Zanzi to the nearest vet, Mounts Bay, where the dog had an on-the-spot emergency operation. Despite valiant efforts, Zanzi died that day. “Whatever it was got stuck in his stomach,” said Peel. “It was tested and found to be extremely rancid palm oil, containing some very nasty bacteria.”

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Word of Zanzi’s oil-based death churned into the news cycle that year. It seemed that palm oil, a product many of us half-heartedly associate with rainforest destruction, had also killed a beloved pet. Following this case, other reports that the oil was sickening and killing dogs began to surface in internet news, most articles referring back to Zanzi himself. In 2014, the BBC reported: “Cornwall Palm Oil ‘Poisons a Dog a Day.’ ” There were many pups turning ill on the busy coastlines that year: Dave the lurcher-Staffie mutt died in Devon days after ingesting “toxic palm oil.” Three-year-old labradoodle Freddie later survived a series of emergency procedures after eating a “large lump of palm oil ... the size of a boulder” on Kingsand Beach. “We were absolutely panic-stricken when we realized what it was,” his owner told the Herald. “We looked online, and were worried we could lose him after seeing what had happened to other dogs—my husband rushed him to the vet straight away.”

Understandably, Zanzi’s death was spurring anxiety in owners up and down the coasts. To protect local pets, Cornwall Council and other governments cleared their beaches of the washed-ashore fats, posted “Be aware of palm oil” signs in their sand, and set up a government webpage as warning. When one palm blob weighing a quarter of a ton came ashore on Hampstead Beach in 2014, three locals towed out a trolley to cart it away.

But why, we should ask, was palm oil washing up along the Strait of Dover in the first place? This is a crop that is grown thousands of miles and landmasses away in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and, more recently, in parts of Africa. What was it doing in England? Most likely, this was beached residue that had been washed out of a chemical tanker’s cargo after the ship made a palm oil delivery to the U.K. Legally, ships are allowed to wash out their tanks, generally with a chemical cleaning solution, before they load on the next product—as long as they do so more than 12 miles from shore. In February 2012, the year before Zanzi died, the European Maritime Safety Agency used new satellite imaging technology to catch a chemical tanker sourced from Singapore cleaning leftover palm oil out of its tanks, leaving an incriminating greasy streak in its wake. The ship was close to Long Rock, where Zanzi began to choke on that mysterious white mass the following year, and it was also nearer than 12 miles from the edge of shore. Eventually, this tanker from Singapore was fined over £20,000 pounds for the violation.

It seems most likely then that what Zanzi ate on the beach in the fall of 2013 was also washed-out palm oil residue from a chemical tanker that had made a delivery of the product to the U.K. Given that European shipping traffic control has just recently acquired its detective technology to assess a ship’s distance to land and that ships continue to legally wash out oils and chemicals beyond that 12-mile mark, it is unclear if this particular chunk came from an illegal emission. Regardless, the harm that we think palm oil did to Zanzi and other dogs in Britain pales in comparison to the harm this product does thousands of miles away, in the tropics, where it is grown.

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Palm oil, sourced from the reddish pulp of the African oil palm plant, Elaeis guineensis, is currently the most used vegetable oil on Earth, and it is found in just about every cosmetic and snack that you take off your cabinet or grocery store shelf. Increasingly, it is used as a biofuel and it is also found in most pet foods. As journalist Jocelyn Zuckerman recently described, it’s become one of our most “indispensable substances.” Our growing demand for this ingredient has also meant that palm oil is the leading cause of deforestation in places like Indonesia and in other equatorial countries once rich in tropical life. Appalling human labor rights issues have been documented in its production; the palm oil industry is among the most problematic of our time.

Thanks to nearly half a century’s worth of environmentalists’ work, “palm oil” seems to be lodged into our minds and our vocabulary. If you look at Google Trends, the database shows that while a search for something benign such as “mineral oil” in the U.K. stays steady over the years, the country now searches for “palm oil” about six times more often today than it did when tracking began, over a decade ago. The trends also show that most of these searches come from Brits who are wondering about the oil’s presence in their everyday products and that “sustainable palm oil” is currently a more popular search than “palm oil health.”

“Palm oil has entered public consciousness with this negative connotation,” said Tony Harwood, a Kent County Council pollution expert. He referenced the industry’s influence on the orangutan, the only great ape of Asia, as well as on the Malayan tapir and other wildlife. Since around the turn of the millennium, he says, we know that we’ve been losing up to 5,000 orangutans to deforestation each year. A lesser-known creature—the tapir, a black-and-white-patched mammal with similar body shape to a pig—once ranged throughout Southeast Asia, but, thanks partially to palm oil harvesting, it is known now to exist only as a series of isolated groups confined to Malaysia. In less than 40 years, the crested black macaque has declined here by over 80 percent. There are fewer than a hundred Sumatran rhinos. These populations are being squeezed into the remaining patches of habitat, and tensions with surrounding human communities are on the rise.

Palm oil, clearly, is destructive—it’s wiping out swaths of biodiversity, releasing its sequestered carbon into our atmosphere, and taking local human livelihoods. But, like so many complicated environmental issues, our interest in acting on this industry fails to match its effect at the global scale. While we might sign a petition and casually scan the label on the back of a wrapper, we lack the urgency and wherewithal to purge this ingredient from our lives, a task that would take an extreme input of our time and energy.

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That said, when it begins to wash up on our shores and to kill our pets, we of course take better notice. Could the potential harm that palm oil posed to pets in Britain help launch a more serious effort to reduce our reliance on this substance across the globe?

If the connection were clear-cut, perhaps—and that seemed to be where this story was headed. But it’s become far from straightforward. Back at Mounts Bay, where Zanzi passed away, it turns out that there had strangely never been a confirmed dog death due to palm oil. In fact, despite the killing-a-dog-a-day statistic, not one of the canine deaths has been proven to be the result of this ingredient. I learned this over a hurried call in the winter when I had been hoping to verify with the vet that palm oil was definitely the cause of the mini-schnauzer’s distress and death three years ago. I, a nosy journalist with an assumedly quick story to write, received just a spew of words before our call was clicked to a close. “No, we didn’t know what it was,” he said. “That was the whole point.” It wasn’t annoyance in his voice but something closer to discomfort.

Looking back to the original Cornishman article that announced Zanzi’s death, I noticed the reporter had written that the “deadly palm oil” was identified by a national agency, Public Health England. But in email exchange with that agency’s Andrew Tristem, I was told that Zanzi’s case was actually not in Public Health’s hands but in those of the Maritime Coastguard’s. That agency’s press officer then responded that, no, they did not analyze the substance, and while Zanzi’s death did coincide with reports of palm oil awash in Cornwall, there had never been proof or cause to believe that palm oil itself was responsible for the dog’s death.

Even though the exact mechanism by which palm oil may have caused Zanzi’s death was tough to discern, there are several possibilities. As with anything that washes onto these shores, the British Veterinary Poisons Information Service’s president later told me, palm oil would experience a gradient of temperatures and substrates after being cleaned from a ship’s cargo tank. It would ride in the salty, polluted sea, then up to the beach. Depending on the season, it would be warmed in the sun, “making it an ideal habitat for bacteria harmful to dogs to grow,” he said. (Most human bacteria multiply quickest at body temperature, in moist environments, and many call the popular coasts of the U.K. home.) Consuming a gluelike blob of anything caked in sand and coastal debris is a good opportunity for an animal to choke, and potentially, to die. But if this blob scoots all the way down through digestion, this still is not good because what is being consumed can also be quite poisonous. Blend oil residue with cleaning chemicals, coast bacteria, and diesel pollution from the busiest shipping lane in the world, and the result is a dog bone from hell. The Poisons Information Service looked into how 30 surviving dogs who had eaten various “palm oil blobs” on different U.K. beaches reacted to the substance. While many had showed no symptoms, one dog did suffer a mild cough that lasted 3 days, and another recovered from aspiration pneumonia after 7 days. Eleven experienced some vomiting, which was the most common side effect, and a handful of them also had diarrhea. Both are symptoms of petroleum poisoning in dogs. (It also seemed possible for a pet to pass several days after eating the beached blob, such as Dave in Devon in 2014, from fat-induced pancreatitis.)

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All told, palm oil is certainly a hazard. The story has since snowballed to include headlines such as, “Dogs Dying From Sniffing Palm Oil” and the “26-Year-Old Killer Shipwreck Responsible for Toxic Palm Oil” that cite the tropical ingredient as cause of death and illness. In fact, just about everything that is semi-solid and white and washing up on shore instantly absorbs the “killer palm oil” identity. This includes beached housing debris, washed-up waxes, and this winter’s story that featured a top photo of a dog staring at what is not a man-made substance at all but the translucent cap of a jellyfish. “Everybody calls everything that’s a fatty substance ‘palm oil’ these days,” said Thanet Council foreshore officer Jean Reynolds. “It’s just a word that’s used for things that wash ashore—it doesn’t mean anything.”

As the following Sun headline might demonstrate, it’s as if this story has become a parody of itself.

170614_SCI_FatburgKiller

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Fatberg is a term used colloquially in the U.K. to define congealed lumps of disposed food fats, cottons, and wet wipes that form “a nasty solid mess” in city pipes, according to the Guardian. It has become a serious issue over on that side of the pond: After flat residents in London complained of not being able to flush their toilets a few years back, one berg weighing the equivalent of two African elephants was dislodged from under the city. It had reduced local sewage to 5 percent of normal capacity. The Sun article above states that it was also one of these pipe fatbergs that blew “thousands of miles across the Atlantic” from “rum punch islands” of the Caribbean during a harsh winter storm, almost killing one curious retriever who ate it on Kent’s Blightly Beach. While palm oil is a tropical island crop, often grown in Latin America, the rushed reporter seems to have merged the regional “fatberg” phenomena with the “deadly palm oil” anxiety of the news. Of course, palm oil is being dumped and delivered all along her home coasts, manufactured into her products, and being sent down her drains every day. So this specific lump of fat at Blightly likely did contain palm oil, even if it didn’t drift from the tropics all on its own.

But now that the palm oil issue has fully merged with Britain’s fatberg problem, environmentalists are backing away. One source who dutifully gathers garbage off the north Cornish coast each morning and who was at first glad to provide background on the local events became hesitant and eventually refused to be quoted. Being attached to this tabloid-type tale, she told me, could disintegrate the repute of her real environmental work cleaning the beach trash. She said that it would risk her seeming kind of “silly.”

This separation is a shame. Perhaps palm oil’s role in the British pet deaths could have been a rallying cry to launch an actual campaign forcing companies to stop sourcing this stuff from far away, reducing harm for people and animals at both ends of its supply chain. Unfortunately, once word of Zanzi’s death was launched into the free waves of the internet, it kicked up too much of the muck.

The British Veterinary Poisons Information Service still considers “palm oil ingestion” an “emerging issue” for canine health. We still pack our products full of an ingredient that displaces life in the tropics. We ship the oil over our seas; it gets washed into our ocean water and dumped down our drains. It clogs up the pipes. When blended with the right toxic cocktail, it poisons our pets. We can see the harm, but we can’t seem to find the right way to flush it out.

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Becca Cudmore is a science journalist from Oregon.​ She will be a Peace Corps volunteer from 2017–19.