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The orcas of the Salish Sea live with massive toxic contamination.

J1, 51 years old & K12, 30 years old ©1994 Stefan Jacobs
J1, male, born about 1950 & K12, female, born in 1971 ©1994 Stefan Jacobs

When salmon are scarce and orcas begin to go hungry, they metabolize their fat supplies, releasing persistent, hormone-disrupting pollutants such as PCBs into their bloodstream, where they wreak havoc with the whales' immune, reproductive and nervous systems. We know from killer whale biopsies and necropies in recent decades that their blubber tissues contain elevated levels of lipophilic toxic substances, notably poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Though PCB levels have generally declined slightly in Puget Sound since they were banned in the 70's, they continue to accumulate in long-lived mammals such as orcas, and are passed on to their young through the placental wall and in mother's milk. Present orca generations carry loads that may have begun to accumulate in their mothers' bodies even before they were born. For example J18, or Everett, a young male who died early in his maturity in January 2000, lacked immunity to common diseases and his sperm count was zero. He carried a massive load of PCBs in his tissues.

superfund sites
Washington Cleanup Sites (October, 2001)

For more background on PCBs, see Ohio State University's PCB fact sheet.

Recently scientists have become aware of a new threat to both orcas and humans, in the form of fire-retardant chemicals called PBDEs, found in everyday household products.
For information on PBDEs, see:
Fireproof killer whales (Orcinus orca): flame-retardant chemicals and the conservation imperative in the charismatic icon of British Columbia, Canada by Peter S. Ross (270KB)

Agencies and organizations doing something to clean up pollutants

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