Scientists found Southern Resident orcas and Bigg with 4-nonylphenol in their liver and skeletal muscles.
4NP is involved in the production of toilet paper.
The scientists also discovered PFAS – forever known as chemicals – in the bodies of killer whales.
Orca whales are some of the most polluted marine mammals in the world.
The species are full of chemicals — from “highly toxic and carcinogenic” PCBs to the infamous insecticide DDT.
Now, a group of scientists have discovered another chemical they’re concerned about – and it’s in toilet paper.
Scientists at the University of British Columbia, the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada found a chemical called 4-nonylphenol – along with many other chemicals – in the liver and skeletal tissue of 12 dead Southern Resident and Orcas Bigg .
The chemical 4NP belongs to a group of chemicals called alkylphenols, which UBC researcher Juan José Alava described to Insider as “very toxic.”
Although Alava, and other researchers who spoke to Insider, noted that it is too early to definitively conclude how 4NP affects orcas, their discovery raises some alarms.
The amount of 4NP found in the killer whales, which tended to be higher in the blood-rich liver tissues, reached exceptionally higher in one calf.
“These contaminants can fundamentally affect reproduction, development, and we know, based on the weight of evidence, that they affect cognitive function and the nervous system,” Alava said. “So we are talking here about pollution that is harmful to the environment and harmful to this species of killer whale.”
Alava said the exact source of 4NP affecting whales is unknown, the chemical can be found mainly in sewage sludge and wastewater treatment plants. It is also used in detergents and cosmetic products.
In addition to 4NP, more than half of the contaminants found in the orcas belonged to a category of chemicals known as PFAS – forever known as chemicals because of their difficulties breaking down in the environment. PFAS can be found in drinking water, fish, and in trace amounts in human blood, and can increase the risk of diseases such as cancer and liver disease in humans.
The authors of the study noted that this is the first time that 7:3-fluorotelomer carboxylic acid, a type of PFA, has been found in orcas from the Pacific Northwest. Alava noted that 7:3 FTCA has not been found in British Columbia before, and it could indicate that the pollutant is moving its way through the food systems.
‘They’re just being killed by 1,000 cuts’
While both Biggs and Southerners are threatened by the possibility of extinction, scientists, whose numbers are not increasing, are particularly concerned about the Southerners.
In addition to habitat loss, climate change, and entanglement in fishing gear, the Southern Resident orca struggles with its food supply.
Overfishing means there is not enough food. And contaminants in the environment mean that when there is food, it can be full of chemicals. Because orcas eat so much, they tend to have higher concentrations of chemicals compared to their smaller marine counterparts.
Southerners rely on Chinook salmon to supplement their diet. The discovery of a chemical in their system means that Chinook salmon also have contaminants in their system – a warning to people who eat the salmon too.
But more than that, a lack of a good food supply is affecting orcas reproduction, Deborah Giles, scientist and director of research at the non-profit Wild Orca, told Insider.
Giles’ own research found that 69% of Southern Resident Orcas’ pregnancies were unsuccessful, with 33% failing late in pregnancy or immediately after birth.
“And those females that are losing their pups are nutritionally deprived, which of course works to increase the impact of the chemicals,” Giles said.
Chemicals are also being transferred between mothers and fetuses. The UBC study, which looked at the Southern Resident known as J32, found that all the chemicals found in her were transferred to her fetus. J32 died in 2014 while trying to give birth to his fetus, Giles noted.
“They are really being killed by 1000 cuts,” said Giles.
‘This is only the tip of the iceberg’
“Too few” orcas have been examined to determine the scope of 4NP contamination in killer whales, the study authors noted, but getting even this much data on orcas – which are usually studied after they are dead – is a significant task. it.
Alava told Insider that due to limited access to orca whales, he doesn’t believe he or the team he worked with will be able to repeat a necropsy study like this anytime soon.
The lack of data means that many questions remain unanswered: Why do certain chemicals have less impact on certain species than on others? How much of a role do these chemicals play in the endangerment of this species? How many chemicals will researchers continue to discover? And which of the many harmful chemicals found in the environment should scientists and regulators focus on when trying to save the species?
Irvin Schultz, manager at NOAA’s Environmental Chemistry Program, who spoke to Insider about the research, also said that because these particular chemicals have not been screened before, more needs to be done to determine their true impact on the species.
“It’s definitely more than track levels,” Schultz said. “So it’s something that gets your attention, and maybe it’s definitely something to continue to measure and keep an eye on.”
Schultz, whose lab is focused on measuring other pollutants — like polyaromatic hydrocarbons that occur naturally after burning fossil fuels — says it’s also important to keep in mind that killer whales are being exposed to so much other contaminants.
“The real value of this study is to provide some data for compounds that have been monitored or monitored less frequently,” Schultz said.
And scientists like Giles are continuing to pay attention to what other unknown chemicals in their bodies could kill whales.
“In my opinion, the more we look, the more we see in terms of chemicals, man-made chemicals that are finding their way through the food web and into our apex predators like whales,” Giles said. “And I think that’s the scary part for me is that I believe this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we’re going to get.”
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