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Whales as Toxic Waste: What is the Warning Sign We’re Waiting For?

Despite the fact that environmental and animal compassion efforts to end commercial whaling have not been totally successful, whaling may finally be on the way out.  Why?

Whales are becoming toxic.

Recently, chief medical officers on the island of Faroe (located between Scotland and Iceland) told the Faroese that their traditional pilot whale hunts not might not be such a good idea, what with the mercury and DDT and PCBs being found in the meat.  Sadly, this advice came not as a precaution, but as a recommendation based on actual studies showing that the Faroese were suffering harm as result of these chemicals and heavy metals.  Studies on the Faroese have indicated that mercury in pregnant women, even at levels well within the “safe” zone established by the World Health Organization, had caused problems for their offspring including learning, memory, and attention deficits, as well as impaired immunity and high blood pressure.  Adults were dealing with higher rates of Parkinson’s disease, circulatory problems and possibly infertility.

This is not a problem isolated to pilot whales or to the island of Faroe.

In 2005, a study by Hans Wolkers (a researcher with the Norwegian Polar Institute), revealed that Norwegian killer whales were the most toxic mammal in the Arctic. Although some of their toxic load can be attributed to persistent, slow-degrading chemicals which had been banned in some areas prior to his study, such as certain pesticides (including DDT, banned in most industrialized nations but still used in developing countries), one of the major contaminants in whale tissues was a brominated flame retardant called Deca-BDE, used in plastics, electronic goods and coatings for household products such as carpets and other upholstered fabrics. Although many U.S. state governments and several international governments have begun to ban Deca-BDE in the last couple years, other brominated flame retardants are still currently in wide use, which means they are likely to continue to contaminate groundwater and oceans to even more toxic levels.

Studies of sperm whales have shown much the same phenomena: surprising concentrations of DDT, PCBs, and other contaminants. In 2003, Genevieve Johnson, then education director of Ocean Alliance, pointed out that the levels of toxins being found could cause severe birth defects in whale fetuses as well as cancers and sterility. She also indicated that because humans, like whales, are a top predator of ocean foods, the same toxins accumulating in whale tissues could also be accumulating at dangerous levels in humans feeding on seafood, presumably whether or not they consumed whale meat as part of their diets.

Look around enough, and you’ll find out that Cook Inlet beluga whales that die in the St. Lawrence riverway in Canada are so full of contaminants such as PCBs and mercury that they are classified as toxic waste. That’s right—a dead animal so full of chemical and heavy metal contaminants that it must be handled and disposed of as toxic waste.

I know, gloom and doom environmental news is nothing new these days, right?  Sure.  But what does this mean for people?

  • In 2002, Tetsuya Endo, Koichi Haraguchi and Masakatsu Sakata at the University of Hokkaido, tested the toxicity of whale liver for sale in Japan.  In two of the 26 liver samples, they found over 1970 micrograms of mercury per gram of whale liver—nearly 5000 times the Japanese government’s limit for mercury. “Acute intoxication could result from a single ingestion,” they warn in a draft paper accepted for publication in The Science of the Total Environment.

Muscle tissue contains lower concentrations of mercury than the liver, but the message coming from many researchers is the same: it’s too much. And even some members of traditional whale-fishing communities agree. For example, levels of contaminants in pilot whales are enough to cause a stir when excess pilot whale meat (actually a member of the dolphin family) is packed into school lunches in Japan, as two Taiji city council members made clear in 2007.

Why are whales and dolphins becoming toxic?  Because many of these dangerous chemicals are fat-soluble, slow to degrade, and they accumulate up the food chain, flesh-eating animals with substantial fat stores (such as whales, dolphins, and polar bears) are at special risk of accumulating toxins at dangerous levels.  As contaminants continue to be dumped in ocean waters, toxicity rates will increase.

I actually do understand that a substantial number of people don’t feel overly compelled to care for the environment, even despite the “greenwashing” of pretty much everything imaginable these days.  I believe environmental apathy is a natural consequence of the way many of us in the U.S. view our world: it’s us and cities here, and “nature” somewhere beyond us.  We can visit nature, but we don’t live there.

This view leaves many of us limited in our ability to understand our interconnectedness with the environment, how our health is inextricably tied to the health of the water, the air, and the soil that provide us with our food and water.  While I understand the cause of that disconnect, I have difficulty understanding how many people are able to brush off information like the whale studies.  The poisoning of the Faroese is about human welfare, not the welfare of other animals.  Moreover, this is not information hinting in vague terms that some of these chemicals we are using might have some undesirable effects on us someday.  This is actual research telling us that food sources have already become poisonous and that people around the world are already living with the effects of that poisoning.  Whether or not one feels there is intrinsic value in the lives and health of all animals, it’s difficult to understand why information on human poisoning from persistent environmental toxins isn’t getting a stronger reaction from the general public.  How has this information not caused a shock wave of massive proportions, an urgent international summit while world leaders rush to figure out the steps that must be taken immediately to end the slow poisoning of the planet—poisoning of us, the people?  Whales have become toxic because they eat large amounts of other fish.  If toxins continue to accumulate, it would follow that lower-level predators would become increasingly toxic as well, which would affect typical American diets.  How many years will it take for a single serving of tuna to cause “acute intoxication?”  Twenty?  Fifty?  How long before a single serving a week is unsafe for developing fetuses?  How long before we find ourselves in the same positions as the Faroese, being told, regrettably, that the health problems we and our children are suffering are the result of diets we presumed healthy?

Many of us find ourselves in that position already, thanks to processed foods, additives, preservatives, flavors, colors, synthetic ingredients, and the like.  I understand that.  I’m talking about something different, about the idea that even whole, unprocessed foods have the potential to function as poisons in the body if they are grown in toxic environments.

I’m not all gloom and doom.  The earth has remarkable capacities for self-healing…but we have to give it the opportunity to do so.  More than that, we have to actively work to reverse the harms caused by things like chemical and heavy metal poisoning, poor air quality, soil erosion, and compromised watersheds.  This is a big-picture problem, requiring a lot of steps as individuals to change our current reality and our possible future.  There is so much you can do to actually make a difference.  For example:

  • Use your purchasing power to support responsible companies.
  • Cut your consumption of unnecessary products.  I cannot emphasize how huge this is.  There’s only so much random stuff we need, particularly plastic.  Also, try not to get rid of things before their time.
  • Reuse and recycle.  And not just your plastics—secondhand stores are your friends.  So are and
  • Buy organic, naturally grown, or otherwise sustainably raised food. Consider joining a CSA.  Cook or learn to cook.
  • Contact companies that you feel use excessive packaging.  Amazon, for instance, seems to have a love affair with very big containers for very small items.
  • Stay alert about environmental issues in your region, and maintain contact with your representatives.  These days, when e-mail petitions are rampant, a letter delivered by the USPS or a phone call is more likely to get someone’s attention.
  • Rethink the chemicals you use in your daily lifeCleaning chemicals, for example.  You’d be amazed what vinegar, baking soda, and elbow grease can accomplish for normal household cleaning.  Pay attention to detergents, shampoos, and soaps; watch for biodegradable ones and avoid ones with contain DEP, phthalates, phosphates, or “fragrance.”  Remember, a lot of this stuff is going down the drain and into the water supply.
  • Use alternative forms of transportation when feasible.  Walk, bike, or take mass transit.
  • Create chemical-free refuges for pollinators and other native wildlife in your yard.  Plant a patch of prairie, some desert landscaping with native trees and flowers, or whatever best suits your area.

There’s a lot there.  If you do all those things already, huzzah!  If you do some of them, way to go!  Now, consider which ones you may want to try incorporating into your lifestyle next.  And, if all those things in the list above are new to you, perfect.  You, dear reader, are the person I am happiest to have here at Simple Spoonful.  Pick one thing from the list—any one—just one—and try to incorporate it into your life, starting today.  Get a friend or relative to do it with you.  Let me know how it goes.  Seriously.

The other day, Michelle asked about how we can effect actual change.  She was talking about GM crops, but many of the same principles apply.  We stay informed.  We clearly, calmly, and consistently make our views known to those who shape and pass legislation, as well as to our friends and family.  We vote.  We make our purchasing decisions based on our ethics whenever possible. We live our lives the best way we know how, and we invite other people we know to do the same.  Buy a family member or friend a book, give them a blog address, find some way to help someone else understand the issues that brought you here to read this blog.  Change starts one person at a time.

“One way or another, most governments follow the will and anger of their people.  That is, they are waiting for us to lead them, to tell them what we really care about.  It is time—and past time—that we do.”

—Sharon Astyk, Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front


2 Comments so far

  1. Kim December 9th, 2008 10:41 pm

    Really wonderful post Laurel. Huzzah! (Thanks for inspiring me to use that word, it’s a good one!)

    It is amazing that the general media, with their generally negative news does not latch onto things like this. I suppose Paris Hilton’s latest blunder is just more important.

    Sarcasm aside, this is scary stuff! I often wonder if even organic food is laced with dioxins, PCB’s, mercury, lead…all that good stuff. Broccoli and lettuce are great phytoremediators, so even if the stuff going into the soil in healthy now, what about what used to be there…or what’s getting added via rain and water? Those plants like to suck it all up and store it in their tissues…then we eat it.

    If we put it in a human time frame, Dioxins and PCB’s will basically be around FOREVER…unless we figure out some way to extract them and break them back into their elemental components. Mercury and lead are elemental components already, they just ended up in the wrong place because of us.

    It’s all very depressing and causes one to not want to think about it. But that’s just the problem…we need to be thinking about this…a lot. ugh.

    Have you read “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman? He talks about some of this in it…it’s fabulous, just somewhat depressing.

  2. Laurel December 10th, 2008 10:09 am


    Thanks. I haven’t read Weisman yet, but I have been intending to. There’s a lot of things I intend to read. ;)

    I appreciate your comments about phytoremediators as well. It’s something I’m not more than passingly familiar with, and I am interested in those details…as well as the details of soil-enriching crops. You know, how to make a nutrient-poor soil nutrient rich again, and how landscaping and strategic planting can make “dead” farmland fertile.

    Plants are generally background noise for us, but they are such amazing organisms. (The Unicyclist and I were startled last night when a particularly large Baja fairy duster seed pod I had drying on top of a shelf exploded, sending seeds flying down the steps. Someone’s going to lose an eye around here, thanks to my seed-bombing stockpiles…)

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