Polar bears, beluga whales, seals sick from toxics | WWF

Polar bears, beluga whales, seals sick from toxics

Posted on 15 June 2006
Polar bear
Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to a large number of plants and animals, including polar bears.
Brussels, Belgium/Gland, Switzerland – Growing evidence shows that harmful chemicals are already affecting the health of many Arctic animals, such as polar bears, beluga whales, seals and seabirds, according to a new WWF report.

While it is still difficult to establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship, there is strong reason to link chemical pollution to immune suppression, hormone disturbances or behavioural changes in Arctic wildlife, the report says.

Several Arctic-wide studies have confirmed that top predators such as polar bears and beluga whales are heavily contaminated with chemicals such as the banned polychlorobiphenyls (PCBs) and organochlorine pesticides. But scientists stress that newer chemicals such as brominated flame retardants and fluorinated chemicals add to the toxic burden on Arctic species.

Researchers found that the presence of the PBDE flame retardant chemical in harbour seals was linked to changes in white and red blood cell counts.

“We can no longer ignore the proof that chemicals are damaging the health of wild animals,” said Samantha Smith, Director of WWF International’s Arctic Programme. “And now, on top of the old banned chemicals such as DDT, newer ones accumulate in, and affect polar bears, beluga whales and other Arctic species.”

WWF is concerned that the interaction of toxic pollution with other current threats to the Arctic, such as climate change, habitat loss and reduced food supply, will put the survival of many of the region’s animal species at risk. The chemical contamination of the Arctic has also implications for the health of some indigenous peoples who rely on a traditional marine diet, according to the report.

The global conservation organization calls for an urgent and significant strengthening of the European Union’s proposed REACH chemical legislation. As it stands, REACH would fail to identify and replace the most hazardous chemicals, says WWF.

“There is no time to lose, evidence accumulated so far is more than sufficient to urge EU legislators to resist further pressure from the industry and move to a more precautionary chemicals legislation,” said Smith. “Only a strong REACH will drastically reduce the chemical footprint both in the Arctic and globally.”

• Scientists are linking the presence of toxic chemicals such as PCBs to observed adverse reproductive effects, such as hormone disruption and changes in testosterone concentrations in male polar bears. They have also observed with concern that organochlorine pesticides reduce the polar bears’ ability to produce antibodies to fight off infectious diseases, making them even more vulnerable to the already harsh conditions of the Arctic.

• Chemicals travel from industrialized regions like the EU to the Arctic, largely via air and water currents.

• In Glaucous gulls, another top Arctic predator, high levels of PCBs, PFOS (a chemical used in stain/water repellent products) and organochlorines, have been associated with reproductive problems and hormone alterations that cause reduced parental attentiveness during egg incubation, non-viable eggs, chicks born with poorer body condition, decreased feeding efficiency and asymmetry in wings.

For more information:
Noemi Cano, WWF DetoX Campaign, t + 32 2 743 88 06 or + 32 479 610451, ncano@wwfepo.org
Julian Woolford, WWF Arctic Programme, t + 47 93 00 64 47, jwoolford@wwf.no
Olivier van Bogaert, WWF International’s Press Office, t + 41 22 364 9554, ovanbogaert@wwfint.org