They find toxic remnants of toilet paper and ‘eternal chemicals’ in orcas

They find toxic remnants of toilet paper and 'eternal chemicals' in orcas

Several chemical contaminants appear in the tissues of killer whales, according to a study carried out by researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC), in that Canadian province. The team analyzed six transient and six southern resident killer whales – an endangered population – stranded on the coasts between 2006 and 2018.

The main compound identified (46% of the total) is 4-nonylphenol or 4NP, used in the production of toilet paper. This substance is listed as toxic in Canada. It is a “emerging pollutant“, potentially dangerous, but not well studied and therefore not regulated.

The study, published in Environmental Science and Technology, is the first to find 4NP in orcas. Kiah Lee, UBC student and first author of the article, acknowledges to SINC that research on this compound still needs to progress: “It is necessary to develop knowledge about 4NP to understand the prevalence and impact of this contaminant in orcas.”

The use of Emerging Concern contaminants is not regulated, but may be a risk factor for the disappearance of orcas.

Co-author Juan José Álava, a researcher at the Institute of Oceans and Fisheries (IOF), points out that 4NP can interact with the nervous system and influence cognitive function: “This research is a wake-up call. population and pollutants may be contributing to its decline. We can’t wait to protect this species.”

For his part, Lee points out that the disappearance of these animals “could have a very serious impact on biodiversity”.

‘Eternal’ Chemicals

Most of the identified contaminants are perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances, called “eternal chemicalsbecause they last a long time in the environment.

“These substances can be found in many everyday products,” notes Lee, “they appear in waterproof materials such as our raincoats, nonstick cookware, packaging, fire extinguishers, and cosmetics.”

Many of these compounds are on the list of new persistent organic pollutants (POLICEMAN). They are toxic substances, many of them banned in Canada, which affect the health of living beings and spread in the physical environment due to human activity.

Study summary infographic / UBC

In the analyzed samples, the researchers also detected alkylphenols, a group to which 4NP belongs. In addition to toilet paper, this substance is also found “in herbicides, pesticides and lubricating oils”, explains the scientist.

persistent organic pollutants

The tissues also showed the prevalence of 7:3-fluorotelomer carboxylic acid, or 7:3 FTCA. “We don’t specifically know the human impacts of 7:3 FTCA, but it is part of the perennial chemical group, which have been linked to cancer, impaired fertility and liver damage, among other consequences,” warns Lee.

Previous research has linked the everlasting chemicals in humans to cancer, fertility changes and liver damage.

There are still no restrictions for this pollutant, but the European Chemicals Agency has included it in its list of proposed toxic substances to be recognized as new POPs, according to the Stockholm Convention on POPs.

This research is also the first to look at mother-to-fetus transfer of contaminants in a Southern couple. They found that all identified contaminants were transferred in utero and that 95% of 4NP was transferred from mother to fetus.

A threat to the entire food chain

“Emerging contaminants and POPs have already been detected in other mammals and are routinely monitored”, explains the researcher. However, very little is known about its effects on orcas, so the work “provides important reference data that can serve as a basis for future studies.”

“4NP has not been found before in British Columbia and has been found in killer whales, which are top predators. This means that contaminants are making their way through the food system,” says Álava.

This compound can leak into the ocean through sewage treatment plants and industrial discharges, where it is ingested by smaller organisms and moves up the food chain.

Contaminants are making their way through the food system

Juan José Alava

“This research is yet another example of an approach that takes into account the health of people, animals and the environment, using orcas as a case study to better understand the potential impacts of these and other compounds on the health of animals.” animals and ecosystems”, highlights the other co-author of the article, Stephen Raverty, associate professor at the IOF.

urgent policy measures

The authors say governments can help protect southern resident orcas and other endangered marine species. To do this, they require stopping the production of emerging contaminants, including 4NP and emerging POPs such as 7:3 FTCA. In addition, they call for identifying and addressing potential sources of marine pollution in British Columbia and Canada.

Álava warns that it is not just killer whales that are affected by these compounds: “We are mammals and we also eat Pacific salmon, so we have to think about how this can affect our health, as well as other shellfish that we eat.”


Lee, K. et al. “Emerging contaminants and new POPs (PFAS and HBCDD) in endangered southern resident and large (transient) killer whales (Orcinus orca). Environmental Science and Technology2022


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