Forever Chemicals Invade Orcas—and Their Fetuses

'We need to think about how this could affect our health,' says researcher
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 15, 2023 6:00 AM CST
Forever Chemicals Invade Orcas—and Their Fetuses
In this Dec. 6, 2014, file photo provided by the Victoria Marine Science Association, biologists examine a dead orca at Bates Beach, Comox, British Columbia.   (AP Photo/Victoria Marine Science Association, Marcie Callewaert, File)

Researchers say they're "shocked and saddened" to have discovered toxic chemicals, including "forever chemicals," in the bodies of killer whales, including endangered southern resident orcas, whose population decline could be a direct result. Scientists from the University of British Columbia, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and BC's Ministry of Agriculture and Food analyzed skeletal muscle and liver samples taken from six southern resident orcas and six transient killer whales that stranded in BC from 2006 to 2018. Their findings show bodies invaded with understudied contaminants, per the CBC.

The substance 4-nonylphenol or 4NP—used in a paper and textile processing and found in products including toilet paper and detergents—accounted for 46% of the pollutants, though it had never been found in killer whales before. The substance, which reaches the ocean via industrial runoff and sewage treatment plants, is considered toxic in Canada, as are several of the discovered "forever chemicals," so named because they don't break down in the environment. The most prevalent forever chemical was 7:3-fluorotelomer carboxylic acid, or 7:3 FTCA, which has never been found in BC before, according to the researchers.

"Very little is known of both the prevalence and health implications of 4NP as it has been studied in few marine mammals," lead study author Kiah Lee, who undertook the research as an undergraduate student, says in a news release. However, forever chemicals "can cause immunotoxicity, making marine mammals like killer whales more susceptible to pathologies and emerging infectious diseases," says study co-author Dr. Juan José Alava of UBC's Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. He notes the contaminants are clearly "making their way through the food system" to reach killer whales, "which are top predators."

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They may also be contributing to the population decline of the endangered southern resident killer whales, Alava says. In analyzing samples taken from a southern resident orca who died while pregnant, researchers confirmed pollutants were passed to her fetus in the womb, per Global News. There are no more than 75 southern resident orcas remaining in the wild. But this isn't just about whales. "We eat Pacific salmon as well, so we need to think about how this could affect our health," says Alava, whose research is published in Environmental Science and Technology. "This research is a wake-up call." (More forever chemicals stories.)

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