Canadian researchers examining the bodies of Southern Resident orca whales stranded along the coast of British Columbia have found toxic chemicals used in production of toilet paper and “forever chemicals” in the flesh of the endangered whales.
Just over half of the pollutants identified in the study belong to a group of compounds known as “forever chemicals” because of how long they last in the environment. They are chemicals widely used in food packaging materials, stain and water-repellent fabrics, cookware, and fire extinguishers. Many are also listed as new Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) — toxic substances released into the environment through human activities that have an adverse impact on the health of people and animals. Many are already banned in Canada.
Participating researchers were from the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Ocean and Fisheries, British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Their work focused on analyzing tissue samples from six Southern Resident killer whales and six Bigg’s whales stranded along the coast of British Columbia from 2006 to 2018
Study results were released in mid January by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. The study was also released in Environmental Science & Technology, an online publication of the American Chemical Society.
Researchers said these chemical pollutants are prevalent in killer whales, with a chemical often found in toilet paper one of the most prevalent in the samples studied — accounting for 46% of total pollutants identified.
The compound, called 4-nonylphenol or 4NP, is listed as a toxic substance in Canada, and can interact with the nervous system and influence cognitive function, researchers said.
Study co-author Juan Jose Alava, principal investigator of the ocean pollution research unit at UBC’s Institute for the Ocean and Fisheries, noted that Southern Resident orca whales are endangered and it could be that these contaminants are contributing to their population decline.
The compound 4NP is often used in pulp and paper processing, soap, detergents, and textile processing. It can enter the ocean through sewage treatment plants and industrial runoffs, where it is ingested by smaller organisms and moves up the food chain to top predators such as orca whales.
The compound 4NP is known as a contaminant of emerging concern or CED, pollutants found in the environment that are not well-studied and so, regulated.
This study was the first to find 4NP in killer whales.