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'Wake-up call': Toilet paper toxin, chemicals found inside endangered B.C. orcas

Many of the chemicals found inside the mammals are banned in Canada.

Killer whales in B.C. are having to battle with sound pollution from large vessels, boat traffic and now, harmful chemicals used in the production of toilet paper.

Scientists with the Institute for the Ocean and Fisheries at UBC, British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada analyzed tissue samples from six southern resident killer whales and six Bigg's whales stranded along the coast of B.C. from 2006 to 2018. 

What they found in their bodies was the presence of 4NP, a compound that is used to make TP.

It can leak into the ocean from sewage treatment plants and industrial runoffs. Once in the water, it can be ingested by smaller organisms, moving up the food chain and reaching killer whales.

In Canada, it's listed as a toxic substance. 

“This research is a wake-up call,” says Juan José Alava, the study's co-author. “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.”

The research is the first to find 4NP in killer whales.

Also discovered by scientists was the presence of "forever chemicals." These chemicals, which last a long time in the environment, are widely used in food-packaging materials, stain and water-repellent fabrics, cookware and fire extinguishers. Just over half of the pollutants identified fell into this category. 

The study notes many of the forever chemicals are also banned in Canada and are listed as new persistent organic pollutants (POPs). 

Alava says the long-lasting chemicals negatively impact the whales. 

“We know that it can impair the nervous system, also the cognitive function... It can also affect the reproductive development of the animals,” he tells Glacier Media. “We know that there are immunotoxins, which means the animal can be more susceptible to pathologies or emerging infectious diseases.”

The researcher acknowledged the efforts being made by the federal and provincial governments to combat pollution; however, "I think we need to do more work," he said. 

Mother killer whales are also passing the pollutants to their fetus, said Alava.

He hopes this research will help the long-term survival of the mammals.

"The idea is to follow the precautionary approach and to prevent. Prevention is better than [a] cure."