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Chemical Pollution

The IWC has been concerned about the impact that chemical pollutants may have on cetacean populations since the early 1980s.  Research on cetaceans and other mammals, including humans, indicates that many classes of chemical pollutants, particularly the persistent organic pollutants, are so-called 'endocrine disrupters,' meaning that they interfere with the endocrine (or hormone) system. As such they can increase susceptibility to disease and reduce reproductive success.

This is a complex issue given the huge number of synthetic chemicals introduced into the environment, the ways in which they may interact with each other, the difficulty in establishing whether they cause adverse health effects, and the difficulty quantifying any potential impacts on whale populations.  In response, the IWC Scientific Committee has initiated three comprehensive research programmes: Pollution 2000, Pollution 2000+ and most recently, Pollution 2020. These initiatives progressed from examining tissue concentrations for priority pollutants in key cetacean species, through to determining toxicological markers and health assessment endpoints that could be used to determine adverse health effects, culminating in the development of tools and techniques to estimate population level effects.

The latest phase of the project, Pollution 2020, aims to assess the risk to cetaceans from microplastics and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).  PAHs are both atmospheric and water-borne contaminants, primarily found in combustion products like oil and coal, and produced as a by-product of burning.  

The IWC Scientific Committee has also initiated work looking at the sources of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) which are proving to be a significant ongoing threat to some cetacean populations long after their production was banned.  Initially widely used in industry and electrical appliances, PCBs were found to be a persistent contaminant of air, soil and water, and their production and use was banned in many countries. PCBs are also very soluble in fat and so can build up in animal fat along the food chain, and end up at sometimes high concentrations in cetaceans.  

Read more

To read the 2015 Pollution 2020 report, SPOC - A Web Application to Investigate the Effects of Pollutants on Cetacean Populations, click here.

To read the 2014 report of the Pollution 2020 Steering Group click here.

To read the 2014 Pollution 2000+ report, Assessing the Population Consequences of Pollutant Exposure in Cetaceans from Ingestion to Outcome, click here.