Report Finds Dangerous Chemical Building Up In Marine Life And Arctic People | Oceana

Report Finds Dangerous Chemical Building Up In Marine Life And Arctic People

Press Release Date: October 6, 2009

Location: Washington


Anna Baxter | email:
Anna Baxter

Oceana released a report today that shows the devastating impact of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, on public health and animals. The report, “Toxic Burden: PCBs in Marine Life,” describes levels of PCBs so alarmingly high in humans and marine animals that in one case, a bottlenose dolphin was discovered to have PCB levels of 2,000 ppm (parts per million), 40 times the amount needed to subject the animal to hazardous waste disposal requirements.

PCBs have long been linked to cancer, birth defects and other harmful effects on humans and animals. They are no longer produced in the United States but remain one of the most ubiquitous chemicals in the environment.  The Environmental Protection Agency cautions against eating fish containing more than .094 ppm PCBs (simply put, equal to less than one drop of water in ten million drops).  In 2002, 38 states issued 813 fish consumption advisories due to PCBs.

The Oceana report includes data from 40 different studies that found high levels of PCBs in humans and marine life.  Most alarmingly, members of the Inuit population native to Greenland, whose diet includes fat from seals, contained PCB levels of 15.7 ppm in their fat, and blood levels nearly six times higher than non-indigenous people.

Ten marine mammals have levels of PCBs so high that they’ve been dubbed the “toxic ten.”  The top five of these marine mammals are the bottlenose dolphin (2,000 ppm), killer whale (more than 1,000 ppm), Risso’s Dolphin (more than 1,000 ppm) harbor seal (205 ppm), and the Beluga whale (128 ppm).

“Because of their diets, marine mammals are bearing the burden of our actions, and so are indigenous people” said Jackie Savitz, director of  Oceana’s Pollution Program and primary author of the report. “Only concerted international action can stop the spread of such dangerous chemicals that can travel for thousands of miles and build up in our bodies and in marine life.”

These chemicals are highly toxic in small amounts, persist in the environment and accumulate in soil, sediments, and plant and animal tissue where they remain for long periods of time. They also have a tendency to travel long distances, which combined with their other characteristics, have created a major, long-term global environmental health crisis.  Some people may now carry enough POPs in their body fat to be of concern since these chemicals can cause serious health problems, including reproductive and developmental abnormalities, cancer, and immune system disruption.

The report stresses the dangers of persistent organic pollutants like PCBs, and urges U.S. lawmakers to fully implement the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, otherwise known as the POPs Treaty. The POPs Treaty calls for the phase-out and ultimate elimination of 10 chemicals, which, in addition to PCBs, includes aldrin, endrin, dieldrin, hexachlorobenzene, chlordane, DDT, heptachlor, mirex and toxaphene. The treaty also restricts the release of dioxins and furans.

After signing the POPs Treaty with great fanfare in 2001, the White House introduced legislation in April 2002 that would gut the treaty because it lacks a provision known as an “adding mechanism.” This mechanism would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate similar dangerous chemicals that may globally banned under the international treaty in the future.

“The Administration promised to deal with this important issue, but it’s throwing up roadblocks and smokescreens designed to protect the chemical industry,” said Savitz. “By excluding the adding mechanism, they are providing a false sense of security to the American public. It’s another one of their attempts to greenwash their programs.”

“Giving the EPA the direction to add new chemicals to the list is vitally important,” Savitz added. Lawmakers continue to allow production and use of other chemicals that are very similar to the banned POPs. In the past few months, new studies have been released showing that chemicals such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are used as a flame retardant in everyday items such as furniture and clothing, pose serious health risks to humans and animals.  Recent studies show that women in California have three to 10 times more PBDE in their breast milk than European or Japanese women.

Manufacturers of PBDE and other chemicals are not required to prove that their products are safe.

To date, 37 other countries have ratified the POPs Treaty.  In the United States, legislation to implement the treaty is currently being considered by the Senate Agriculture and the House Energy and Commerce Committees. It will enter into force once it has been ratified by 50 countries.

In written appeals to Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-LA, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-MS, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Oceana and a coalition of 25 other environmental groups urged these lawmakers to honor the U.S. commitment to the treaty by including an effective adding mechanism.

“The White House bill is a blatant anti-environmental move,” said Savitz. “But there is still an opportunity for Congress to pass a better bill that will actually protect the public and marine life from chemicals like PCBs.”

For more information about the POPs Treaty, please visit the United Nations Environment Program Web site at:

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Oceana is a non-profit international advocacy organization dedicated to restoring and protecting the world’s oceans through policy advocacy, science, law and public education. Founded in 2001, Oceana’s constituency includes members and activists who are committed to saving the world’s marine environment from more than 150 countries and territories.  Oceana, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has additional offices in key U.S. coastal areas, a South American office in Santiago, Chile, and a European office in Spain. For more information, please visit