Report: A Lethal Cocktail – Marine Pollutants & Whales

Report contents:

  • Introduction
  • Persistent Organic Pollutants
  • Chemicals and hormones
  • Flame retardant: EDC
  • Polar Bears
  • Whaling: unsafe and unsustainable

Download a printable version of the  ‘A Lethal Cocktail – Marine Pollutants & Whales’ report


The world is filled with harmful synthetic chemicals – over 65,000 according to the US National Research Council, with 10,000 of them in regular use. Toxic industrial chemicals and pesticides have been detected in wildlife from the Arctic to Antarctica. Among whale species, all individuals tested have been found to be contaminated. The offshore oil and gas industry alone uses some 2,500 different chemicals, many of which are discharged directly into the marine environment. Many of these chemicals accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals inhabiting contaminated marine waters and sediments. Very little information is available on the majority of these chemicals individually, let alone what they do when they form complex mixtures.

Many synthetic chemicals found in north-east Atlantic waters are known to cause genetic disruption and cancer; kidney, liver and heart disease; damage to the central nervous system; reduction in resistance to bacterial, fungal and viral infections; as well as disruption of the hormone system in wildlife and humans. These effects can occur even when toxic pollutants are present in very low concentrations.

Persistent Organic Pollutants

Much of the concern relates to some of the most toxic substances known – the persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which are very resistant to natural breakdown and accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and humans. Studies on bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico show they suffer damaged immune systems as a result of the bio-accumulation of these toxins within their bodies. POPs such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were once widely used in the electrical industry. Such is the level of concern about these agents that some scientists have predicted they could cause the extinction of all marine mammals unless they are safely recovered and disposed of – a seemingly impossible task.

Tragically, young animals are the most dependent, and vulnerable. Much of the mothers accumulated toxins pass directly to her young in her breast milk, particularly the firstborn. Elevated levels of PCBs found in a bottlenose dolphin calf in Cardigan Bay on the Welsh coast were amongst the highest recorded in dolphins anywhere in the world. The unfortunate baby’s body had to be disposed of as toxic waste!

Even over the vast area of the Pacific Ocean contaminants have accumulated in high levels among predators through the food chain. For example, dioxins, PCBs, and DDT are considered to be an important factor in the ongoing decline of the Midway Atoll black-footed albatross, a species that spends much of its life ranging over vast expanses of ocean.

Chemicals and hormones

Many synthetic chemicals inhibit the endocrine (hormone producing) system and can have profound impacts on population levels of marine mammals. Animal populations that appear to be healthy may in fact be suffering from imperceptible damage that impairs their ability to withstand otherwise tolerable stresses and recovery from natural disasters. The group of POPs known as “endocrine disrupting” chemicals (EDCs) are an immediate threat to endangered species and a major long-term threat to bio-diversity.

So far, over 50 compounds have been identified as having reproductive and endocrine disrupter effects. These EDCs include compounds widely used in pesticides, some heavy metals and organochlorines used in industrial processes. They can also be found in plastics and flame-retardant materials. Undoubtedly, more will come to light.

Flame retardant: EDC

Traces of flame retardant EDCs have been found in sperm whales and other marine mammals stranded along the coast of the Netherlands. These chemicals are used in a wide range of products, including cars, computers, textiles and televisions. They are similar in behavior to organochlorines and are known to affect the reproductive system and the regulation of thyroid and steroid hormones.

EDCs can undermine the development of the endocrine, reproductive, immune and nervous systems in the young. In most cases, the changes caused by this disruption are delayed and irreversible. Impacts on marine wildlife so far identified include:

  • Decreased fertility in fish, shellfish, birds and mammals
  • Thyroid dysfunction in fish and birds
  • Decreased hatching success in birds, fish and turtles
  • Gross birth deformities in fish, birds and turtles
  • Metabolic abnormalities in fish, birds and mammals
  • Behavioral abnormalities in birds
  • Sexual change in fish, birds and mammals
  • Compromised immune systems in birds and mammals

Polar Bears

Polar bears are top predators that feed principally on other marine mammals. In June 1998, the journal Science reported that near the Arctic island of Svalbard (Spitsbergen) in the Barents Sea, Norwegian scientists had discovered seven female polar bears with both female and male genitals. The researchers suspect PCBs are responsible, having accumulated in the bears in increasing concentrations via their prey – including Arctic seals, beluga and narwhal.

Many scientists point out that at present we are only witnessing the early stages of endocrine disruption in the more susceptible animal species. As more synthetic chemicals are manufactured and/or released into the environment, the greater the damaging effects of EDC contamination will be on ecosystems, and ultimately ourselves.

Whaling: unsafe and unsustainable

Whales are increasingly contaminated with highly toxic chemical compounds caused by human pollution of their environment. Those who eat whale and dolphin meat and blubber are jeopardising their health and the health of their children. Apart from the risk to humans from ingesting contaminated food, the long-term threat to whales, dolphins, porpoises and other marine mammals, as well as seabird and fish populations, is truly frightening. No one can claim that consuming whale products is safe or that any level of whaling can be truly sustainable.

Campaign Whale believes that the future of the world’s whale populations is under threat as never before. We will continue to press the IWC and its member governments to priorities scientific research to investigate, identify and eliminate these and other threats to whales posed by environmental change. Campaign Whale is fighting to ensure the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling is respected and enforced for the foreseeable future

End of report

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