New Report Says Whales and Dolphins Live in a ‘Toxic Soup’ of Pollution.
Whale and Dolphin Conservation have published a new report on the impact of chemicals on the health of whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans).
The report highlights that one of the main chemical pollution threats to cetacean populations are the persistent organic pollutants (POPs); including those banned, such as PCBs and those still in use today, including numerous PFAS and flame retardant chemicals.
POPs are renowned for their inability to break down in the environment, hence the term ‘persistent’. This is a concern because it means POPs can increasingly build-up in the tissues of animals and people throughout their lifetime, which is known as bioaccumulation.
Cetaceans have a thick layer of fatty tissue called blubber, which acts as insulation and an energy store. However, many POPs build-up in fatty tissues, which the report highlights can lead to severe health implications for cetaceans including a suppressed immune system, still births and birth defects.
PCBs are a group of infamous chemicals that were once extensively used worldwide in products such as paints, electronics and adhesives. Concerns over the toxicity of PCBs, in particular their negative impacts on the fertility of several marine species, lead to PCBs being banned in the U.S. in 1979, in the UK in 1986, in the European Union in 1987 and worldwide in 2004.
However, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation report, the persistence of PCBs and poor disposal and waste management of products containing these chemicals still lead to their entry into the aquatic system resulting in ongoing profound impacts on cetaceans.
The report highlights that PFAS chemicals – a group of over 10,000 chemicals similarly known for their extreme persistence – are also a pollutant of great concern. Due to their ability to repel water and grease they are used in a wide range of industrial processes and in everyday products from cookware, to clothing and cosmetics.
PFAS chemicals can similarly accumulate in the tissues of animals and humans and according to the report they can be transferred through the placenta of marine mammals to their offspring. Certain PFAS are known to interfere with the normal functioning of hormones and can cause reproductive issues as well as cause certain cancers. Whale and Dolphin Conservation note that emerging pollutants such as PFAS could be ‘equally or more harmful than more studied pollutants such as PCBs’.
As illustrated by the example of PCB pollution, the current levels of PFAS pollution could impact marine populations for decades. Until a universal ban is achieved, we continue to add to the problem. However, current regulations only address a few PFAS chemicals.
Whale and Dolphin Conservation are calling for stricter regulation, improved waste management, a phase-out of toxic chemicals, funded targeted research and increased education on the issues outlined in their report.