Toxic chemicals found inside B.C. killer whales: UBC study

A toxic chemical used in the production of toilet paper has been found in the bodies of orcas in B.C.’s waters, according to a University of British Columbia (UBC) study.

The chemical, called 4-nonylphenol (4NP), was found in a dozen killer whales that were stranded along B.C.’s coasts between 2006 and 2018. Included in the analysis were six members of the endangered southern resident killer whales.

The Institute for the Ocean and Fisheries (IOF) at UBC, along with researchers from B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture, and Food and Fisheries, and Oceans Canada analyzed tissue samples from the beached whales. They found 4NP to be the most prevalent chemical found in the samples, making up 46 per cent of all pollutants.

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Lead investigator at the IOF, Dr. Juan José Alava, says the findings should serve as a “wake-up call.”

“Southern residents are an endangered population and it could be that contaminants are contributing to their population decline. We can’t wait to protect this species,” he said.

Along with toilet paper, 4NP is used in various household items such as soaps and detergents. Researchers say the chemical can leak into the ocean through sewage treatment plants and industrial runoffs.

Once it gets into the water, it gets ingested by smaller organisms, making its way up the food chain until it reaches predators like orcas.

Despite its prevalence, UBC undergrad researcher Kiah Lee says 4NP is not very well-studied.

“Very little is known of both the prevalence and health implications of 4NP as it has been studied in few marine mammals. This study is the first to find 4NP in killer whales,” she said.

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Researchers say the chemical is also being detected in newborn killer whales. The study found the pollutants were transferred to baby orcas in the womb.

Dr. Alava says the study should kick-start government action to halt the production of chemicals of concern like 4NP, as they can also make their way into humans.

“We are mammals, we eat Pacific salmon as well, so we need to think about how this could affect our health as well as other seafood that we consume,” he said.

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