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11-27-2023

Endangered dolphins suffer from highest levels of PFAS "forever chemicals"

A recent study conducted by scientists from the Marine Mammal Foundation, the RMIT University, and the University of Melbourne has revealed alarming concentrations of PFAS chemicals in Victoria’s critically endangered Burrunan dolphins

These chemicals, often referred to as “forever chemicals” due to their persistence, are commonly found in products like food packaging, firefighting foam, and non-stick cookware.

Shocking insights

The study analyzed samples from 38 dolphins of various species found stranded along Victoria’s coastline, with a particular focus on the Burrunan dolphin populations in Port Phillip Bay and Gippsland Lakes. 

The findings showed that some chemicals’ average concentrations in these dolphins were over ten times higher than levels believed to cause liver toxicity and other health issues.

Highest PFAS levels recorded

One juvenile Burrunan dolphin from Port Phillip Bay exhibited a PFAS liver concentration of 19,500 nanograms per gram, marking the highest level recorded in an individual dolphin globally. 

“Not only did we find the highest levels of these human-made toxicants in a species that’s already critically endangered – including in newborn and juveniles – we also found one dolphin from Port Phillip Bay with PFAS concentrations almost 30 percent higher than any other individual dolphin reported globally,” said lead author Chantel Foord, a PhD student at RMIT’s Ecotoxicology Research Group and the Marine Mammal Foundation.

PFAS implications for dolphins 

Foord reassured that these results do not necessarily imply a risk to humans in Victorian waters, as dolphins ingest whole fish including organs that accumulate pollutants, unlike human consumption which typically involves only fish muscle tissue.

The study, published in the Science of the Total Environment journal, raises questions about the source of this pollution, especially as no PFAS manufacturing occurs in Australia. Foord emphasized the importance of identifying the sources of these chemicals and understanding their behavior in the environment.

Critical status

Dr. Kate Robb, Director of the Marine Mammal Foundation and co-author of the study, highlighted the critical status of the Burrunan dolphin. “With only 250 individuals across these populations, increasing our understanding of threatening processes is absolutely crucial for the conservation and protection of the Burrunan dolphin, and in the management and mitigation of those threats,” she said.

The experts also discovered emerging contaminants, indicating that newer replacement chemicals are already bioaccumulating in the marine ecosystem. This finding underscores the need for continued research and conservation efforts to protect these endangered marine mammals and their habitat.

More about PFAS

PFAS, which stands for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, are a group of human-made chemicals that have been in production since the 1940s. PFAS are used in a wide range of consumer products and industrial applications because of their ability to resist heat, water, and oil. 

PFAS sources

Common products that contain PFAS include non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, cosmetics, and products that use firefighting foams.

Concerns

One of the primary concerns with PFAS is their persistence in the environment and in the human body, which is why they are often referred to as “forever chemicals.” They do not break down and can accumulate over time. This persistence can lead to contamination of drinking water, soil, and air.

Health risks from PFAS

Exposure to certain PFAS has been linked to a range of health problems. Studies indicate that PFAS may affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children, lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, interfere with the body’s natural hormones, increase cholesterol levels, affect the immune system, and increase the risk of cancer.

Regulation

Efforts to manage and mitigate PFAS contamination include regulating their use, developing alternative materials, and cleaning up contaminated sites.

However, the widespread use and persistence of these chemicals make this a challenging task. Additionally, the scientific understanding of the health effects of many PFAS is still evolving, making regulation and remediation a complex issue.

PFAS and wildlife

The impact of PFAS on wildlife varies depending on the species and the level of exposure, but it generally includes a range of adverse health effects:

Reproductive issues

PFAS can cause reproductive problems in wildlife, leading to reduced fertility, developmental delays, and changes in reproductive behaviors.

Developmental effects

Young animals exposed to PFAS may experience developmental delays or defects, impacting their survival and growth.

Immune system disruption

These chemicals can disrupt the immune systems of animals, making them more susceptible to diseases. For example, studies have shown that PFAS exposure can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines in animals.

Behavioral changes

Exposure to PFAS can lead to changes in animal behavior, which can affect their ability to forage, mate, and avoid predators.

Marine life

Aquatic creatures, such as fish and amphibians, are particularly vulnerable to PFAS contamination due to the runoff of these chemicals into water bodies. 

Birds, especially those that consume fish or live in aquatic environments, are also at significant risk. Terrestrial animals can be exposed through contaminated water sources, soil, or through the food chain.

Efforts to protect wildlife from PFAS involve reducing and eventually eliminating the use of these chemicals in products and industrial processes, as well as cleaning up contaminated environments. However, given the persistence and ubiquity of PFAS, protecting wildlife from these substances is a complex and ongoing challenge.

Image Credit: Marine Mammal Foundation

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