In 1990, Dr. Susan Shaw established the Marine & Environmental Research Institute (MERI) a nonprofit charitable organization with an environmental health research mission and began long-term marine sentinels research on contaminants and endocrine-disrupting effects in marine mammals that became the Institute’s central focus over the next two decades. In 2000 the Institute hosted its first international conference Endocrine Disruptors in the Marine Environment: Impacts on Marine Wildlife and Human Health, bringing together 22 wildlife and human health scientists from both sides of the Atlantic to share findings and recommend solutions. The scientists’ consensus statement on human-wildlife exposure-effects was published in the prestigious NIEHS journal. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Shaw established a marine science center in coastal Maine, launched a coastal monitoring program, a lecture series, and education programs. Multi-year, region-wide Seals As Sentinels research expanded along the Atlantic with partnerships and NOAA funding.
In 2012, the Institute pioneered microplastics research in Blue Hill Bay, Maine. Alarming findings about the presence of microplastics in coastal waters, concern for human health (via seafood consumption) began to drive legislation and media attention. By 2017, the Institute was involved with large, multi-year projects and partnerships: ocean sentinels/climate change research with Sweden, Greenland and Iceland; analysis of microplastics in tissues of mussels, fish, marine mammals; and proposed fire fighter cancer biomarker studies in California and Arizona.
In 2018, the Marine & Environmental Research Institute is renamed the Shaw Institute to honor Dr. Shaw’s 30 year legacy and accommodate the organization’s global research profile with emphasis on improving human health.
The Institute remains dedicated to investigating the impact of chemicals on human and wildlife health, informing legislators and educating the public about the risks they pose, and protecting people and wildlife from the growing quantities of toxic substances in the environment. From flame retardants to plastics, our discoveries have informed public opinion and fueled key legislation which impacts millions of people in Maine and across the country.
“We are living with the consequences of the fossil fuel age. There is an urgent need to understand how complex, man-made stresses like toxic chemicals, plastics, and global warming are affecting the environment and human health."
- Dr. Susan Shaw
The Institute's quarter-century journey has led our scientists from studying the sudden die-off of thousands of harbor seals to examining contaminants in the marine food web, understanding the entry and pathways of chemical pollutants from indoor environments to coastal waters, and analyzing the impact of those pollutants on subjects ranging from marine mammals to the nation’s fire fighters.
The Institute's work stands in the tradition of Rachel Carson, whose rigorous scientific studies led her to become a passionate public advocate for the protection of human health and the environment. Carson faced fierce resistance from those who sought to undermine her work, but she stood her ground, confident in the rigor and independence of her own research, which ultimately led to major changes in how America regulates toxic chemicals.
Carson's pioneering studies on DDT, which at the time was thought to be a benefit to both human health and food production, compelled the world to rethink the consequences of the widespread application of toxic chemicals. Today, our research on PCBs, flame retardants, chemical dispersants, plasticizers, and other pervasive toxic chemicals continues the tradition of scientists who insist that their research results become part of an informed public conversation, and who actively promote policies that will improve environmental protection and human health. "People," says Shaw, "have a right and a need to know."
Looking forward, we approach the future with a renewed commitment to advancing knowledge through independent research and providing science-based solutions that will inform consumers, encourage investment in non-toxic alternatives, and support public policies to protect human health and the environment on which it depends.