Friday, June 25, 2010

Whales & Heavy Metals: new study documents high levels of toxins

Because of the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) this week, there has been a lot of related cetacean news with various scientific reports being issued for the benefit of the commission.

BTW: The IWC went into closed door sessions regarding potential changes in the current whaling moratorium. Apparently, the issue was tabled, which is being considered a good or bad thing by observers, depending on who you talk to. Good because the status quo remains and nations like Japan and Norway haven't stormed out; bad because it's still an issue that has sticking points for some and the delay allows opposing parties to exert more influence against the moratorium as it currently exists.

The Associated Press recently reported on a disturbing scientific study presented to the IWC by Dr. Roger Payne and the Ocean Alliance, which conducted the research. According to the report, whales are carrying a stunningly high level of various toxic heavy metals including cadmium, aluminum, chromium, lead, silver, mercury, and titanium.

The research, begun in 2000 by taking tissues samples from 995 whales over a five-year period, was initially designed to track persistent organic pollutants (DDT, PCB, etc.). The researchers were surprised by the levels of heavy metals in their samples.

"The researchers were stunned with the results. 'That's where the shocking, sort of jaw-dropping concentrations exist,' Payne said. Though it was impossible to know where the whales had been, Payne said the contamination was embedded in the blubber of males formed in the frigid polar regions, indicating that the animals had ingested the metals far from where they were emitted. 'When you're working with a synthetic chemical which never existed in nature before and you find it in a whale which came from the Arctic or Antarctic, it tells you that was made by people and it got into the whale,' he said. How that happened is unclear, but the contaminants likely were carried by wind or ocean currents, or were eaten by the sperm whales' prey."

The report cited levels of mercury at an average of 2.4 parts per million (ppm), with some whales recording as high as 16 ppm. Chromium - a known carcinogen used in the making of stainless steel, dyes, paints, and leather tanning and the subject of a major environmental civil suit made famous in the movie "Erin Brockovich" - was found in all of the study's 361 sperm whales.

Mercury pollution has become a hot topic in the shark and tuna conservation movement with levels typically around 1 ppm. There has been considerable industry opposition in the form of conflicting or disputing counter-reports as to either the levels or toxicity of mercury in seafood. It would not be surprising to see a similar response to this Ocean Alliance report from nations with an economic interest in continued whaling.

"'The entire ocean life is just loaded with a series of contaminants, most of which have been released by human beings,' Payne said in an interview on the sidelines of the International Whaling Commission's annual meeting. Payne said sperm whales, which occupy the top of the food chain, absorb the contaminants and pass them on to the next generation when a female nurses her calf. 'What she's actually doing is dumping her lifetime accumulation of that fat-soluble stuff into her baby,' he said, and each generation passes on more to the next. Ultimately, he said, the contaminants could jeopardize seafood, a primary source of animal protein for 1 billion people. 'You could make a fairly tight argument to say that it is the single greatest health threat that has ever faced the human species. I suspect this will shorten lives, if it turns out that this is what's going on,' he said."

Dr. Payne is well known for his studies in the late 60's of humpback whale songs. His research advanced our understanding of the intelligence and complex social behaviors of whales and significantly added to the public groundswell in support of a whaling moratorium. But his recent research gives him much reason for concern as to the whales' future.

"'I don't see any future for whale species except extinction,' Payne said. 'This is not on anybody's radar, no government's radar anywhere, and I think it should be.'"

Read entire Associated Press article.


Got Mercury said...

An excellent tool to gauge how much potential mercury is in the fish you are eating is the free on-line calculator found at

RTSea said...

Yes, an excellent tool to carry on your mobile/smart phone. I have mentioned it several times in previous posts and it's always with me on my iPhone.

What concerns me with the report on whales is the growing presence of other equally dangerous compounds.