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A new study predicts some populations of orcas could face collapse in the coming decades thanks to a toxic compound that has been banned for years.
A lingering menace: The research published in the journal Science found polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are accumulating in killer whales at high levels, affecting their behavior and threatening their existence. PCBs are organic compounds used in oil paints, coolants, capacitors and other industrial products until they were determined unsafe. Many countries, including the United States, banned them in the ’70s and ’80s, and a worldwide ban was ratified in 2001. But the orcas tested in the study are heavily contaminated, and the chemicals are damaging their immune and reproductive systems. While PCB levels in the environment initially dipped after the bans, they have since leveled off, and many products that were made with the compounds are still around today.
Tough life at the top: Orcas are apex predators. PCBs accumulate in plankton, and concentrations of the harmful chemical rise as you go up the food chain, with killer whales feasting on seals and other ocean life which themselves exhibit high PCBs levels. The study suggests half of the world’s killer whale populations could face complete collapse in 30 to 50 years as their health and ability to reproduce deteriorate. More remote orca populations, such as those in Alaska and Antarctica will probably continue to grow, the study predicts, but those swimming in waters off more populated areas, like the United Kingdom, Hawaii and Japan, are at high risk of collapse from just the PCBs alone—without considering other threats. Numerous countries are not living up to commitments to appropriately dispose of old, PCB-contaminated equipment by 2028, and the study’s lead author, Jean-Pierre Desforges, said he hopes the study will spark a renewed effort to protect the species.
Lasting legacy: The case of PCBs illustrates the decades and even centuries worth of damage that can be caused by decisions made today. In related news, the Environmental Protection Agency has eliminated its science advisor position, which counsels the agency on the research and science behind health and environmental studies. Here is a list of all of the environmental regulations that have been repealed or limited in the last two years.