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Lulu was so full of chemicals, her body was treated as toxic waste. Image: SMASS

Chemical pollution facts

Chemical pollution is everywhere.

It's one of the biggest environmental threats our planet and whales and dolphins face today.

Why is chemical pollution a problem?

Some chemicals don’t break down. When these ‘forever chemicals’ enter the ocean, they are absorbed by small fish, which are eaten by larger fish, seals, porpoises, dolphins and whales. These toxins accumulate as they move along the food chain, ending up with the highest levels at the very top.

This is called ‘biomagnification’ and it affects all the top predators in the ocean, particularly mammal-eating orcas.

These chemicals can lead to diseases like cancer, suppress immune systems, cause birth defects and stillbirths, or stop whales and dolphins having children at all.

In this video, an orca named Lulu explains the devastating impacts our chemicals have had on her, her family, and her ocean home.

Lulu on beach from animation

Chemical consequences

Lulu was a member of the Scottish West Coast Community of orcas.

There used to be about 10 orcas in this population. Now there are only two and they are both male.

When Lulu died, scientists found that she had more toxic chemicals in her body than almost any marine mammal ever recorded.

She was considered toxic waste.

Chemical pollution is devastating the ocean and killing families like Lulu's.

What is WDC doing?

People need to know about the harm that chemicals are doing to the ocean and all the amazing creatures who live there. We're lobbying governments for stricter regulations and better safety assessments and to put proper checks in place to stop these killer chemicals getting into the sea. We're calling for ‘forever chemicals’ to be banned and for remaining stocks of ‘legacy chemicals’ to be cleaned up.

We've produced an eye-opening report which we're using to support our call for action.

TOXIC TIDES, TROUBLED WHALES

If you’d like to know more about the impact of chemicals on whales and dolphins, and how you can help, please read our free report, which includes full references to scientific papers.

Download the report (PDF)

Published with support from:

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Dive deeper

What’s the problem?

Chemical pollution is the contamination of our environment with chemicals that are not found there naturally. Most of the chemicals that contaminate the environment are human-made and come from activities where toxic substances are used. Chemical pollution is one of the main global environmental threats our planet and whales, dolphins and porpoises face today.

types of pollution

Toxic chemicals known as ‘persistent organic pollutants’ (POPs) have harmful effects on the health of all living beings and on the environment. These chemicals travel long distances through wind and water, impacting people and wildlife far beyond their original source. They persist in the environment for extended periods and accumulate in the food chain, transferring from one species to another, and have toxic effects.

Biomagnification

What’s being done?

To address chemical pollution globally, the UK, along with 90 other countries and the European Community, signed a treaty called the Stockholm Convention in May 2001. The treaty aims to reduce or eliminate the production, use, and release of POPs, and it includes a scientific review process to identify and address additional POPs of global concern. As of 2023, 38 chemical substances - a mixture of industrial chemicals, agricultural chemicals (such as pesticides) and unintentional releases, also known as by-products - were identified for elimination, restriction or reduction under the Stockholm Convention.

Weren’t these chemicals banned?

Whilst some POPs (such as PCBs and DDT) were banned decades ago, they still enter the marine environment by leaching from landfill sites and industrial wastewaters, posing risks to people, wildlife and ecosystems.

Which chemicals are a problem?

Legacy chemicals:

Some of the most well-known legacy POPs are the insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl esters (PBDEs), dioxins and a variety of organochlorine pesticides including aldrin, dieldrin, and endrin.

  • PCBs are a group of 209 persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic pollutants which were used extensively as heat exchange fluids in a variety of electronic devices.
  • PBDEs are brominated flame retardants widely used in commercial and household products such as textiles, furniture and electronics. Other chemical pollutants of significant concern include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), generated primarily during the incomplete combustion of organic materials (e.g., coal, oil, petrol, and wood).

Emerging chemicals:

There are several emerging chemicals that are of concern, including brominated flame retardants (BFRs), polychlorinated naphthalenes (PCNs), and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

  • PFAS, often referred to as the 'forever chemicals,' are a large family of over 10,000 chemicals known for their exceptional persistence. They are resistant to water, oil, heat, and chemicals, which makes them valuable for various consumer and industrial applications, such as carpet protectants, non-stick cookware, electronic devices like cell phones and semi-conductors, as well as firefighting foam due to their water and grease-resistant properties.

 

How do these chemicals affect whales and dolphins?

Many POPs are highly soluble in fatty tissues such as blubber, whereas many emerging contaminants such as PFAS preferentially bind to proteins.

The PCBs that whales, dolphins and porpoises absorb from their food end up being stored mainly in their blubber. The levels of PCBs in an individual’s blubber will build up over time as they consume more and more contaminated fish or mammals. In times of stress, when, for example, food is scarce, whales, dolphins and porpoises tend to break down their stores of blubber to provide them with an energy supply. Breaking down blubber in this way releases a flood of toxic PCBs into their body. Toothed whales are more heavily exposed than baleen whales because they are higher up the food chain and live in more coastal areas.

The PCB burden carried by male and female whales, dolphins and porpoises tends to increase until they reach sexual maturity. After that point, males continue to absorb PCBs from their food. However, the PCB burden carried by female whales, dolphins and porpoises drops off after they have their first baby, because the females pass on most of their PCB burden to their first-born.

POPs can cause reproductive failure (i.e., implantation failure, fetal death, and increased first-born calf mortality), severe reproductive dysfunction, cysts, cancer, hermaphroditism, and increased risk from natural infections (by suppressing immune function and decreasing resistance) in whales, dolphins and porpoises.

 

What needs to happen?

WDC urges the UK government to take decisive steps when publishing its upcoming Chemicals Strategy. The UK is diverging downwards from EU standards at an alarming rate. It’s vital that the UK sets out a robust plan to protect the ocean, wildlife and people from hazardous chemicals, and prevent future pollution.
Our comprehensive recommendations on chemical pollution are included in our new report which can be accessed here:
  • Stricter regulation: including group restrictions/bans on all similarly structured chemicals if one is found to be harmful (preventing easy replacement of one dangerous chemical with another).
  • Improved waste management: enhance management practices for proper disposal to prevent further chemical contamination into the environment.
  • Rigorous phasing out of known toxic chemicals: including restricting the production and use of PFAS, known as ‘forever chemicals’.
  • Adopting the precautionary approach: by factoring in the impacts of chemicals on nature and biodiversity loss and the influence of climate change on the fate, transport and distribution of chemicals.
  • Systematic monitoring: global cooperation and support for improved regulation and monitoring schemes including routine testing of stranded marine animals and increased investigation of emerging pollutants,
  • Enforced compliance mechanisms: providing suitable incentives for contaminant elimination and safe disposal as well as penalties for inadequate disposal.
  • Funded targeted research: to better identify toxicity thresholds in marine species and investigate the impacts of chemical mixtures on biodiversity.
  • Education and Public Awareness: educate about chemical disposal risks, especially for everyday hazardous products.

 

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