Toxic Chemicals from Food, Food Packaging and Personal Products Discovered in Dolphins, Whales

Humans do not live in a bubble, and neither do our nasty, toxic chemicals.  While highly disturbing, it should surprise no one that toxic chemicals from our food, food packaging and personal care products have found their way into the bodies of marine mammals.  The results of a new study revealed concentrations of atrazine (an herbicide), DEP (an endocrine disrupting chemical from the phthalate family found in our plastics), NPE ( a chemical commonly used in processed food packaging) and endocrine-disrupting triclosan* (an antibacterial/antifungal chemical used as a pesticide and found in consumer products such as toothpaste, shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, some versions of soaps including dish-washing liquids and laundry detergents, hand creams and toys) in the bodies of stranded whales and dolphins.

Study overview

A study led by researchers at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute examined toxins in tissue concentrations and pathology data from 83 stranded dolphins and whales along the southeastern coast of the United States from 2012 to 2018. Researchers examined 11 different animal species to test for 17 different substances in animals found on the shores in North Carolina and Florida.

Scientists analyzed blubber samples for five organic toxicants including atrazine, DEP, NPE, bisphenol-A, diethyl phthalates and triclosan. They also analyzed liver samples for five non-essential elements (arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, thallium), six essential elements (cobalt, copper, manganese, iron, selenium, zinc) and one toxicant mixture class (Aroclor, a highly toxic industrial compound).

Results overview

Among other toxins, researchers found concentrations in blubber tissues of stranded cetaceans of atrazine, an herbicide, DEP, (a phthalate ester found in plastics), NPE or nonylphenol ethoxylate commonly used in food packing, and triclosan, commonly found in a wide variety of personal care products and children’s toys.

Toxicants in the marine environment result from polluted runoff and chemicals in waterways from fossil fuels as well as single-use plastics commonly used by humans. These plastic objects contain dangerous phthalates and include packaging film, detergents and some children’s toys.

Where do we go from here?

The lead scientist in the study put it plainly:

“We must do our part to reduce the amount of toxicants that enter into our marine environment, which have important health and environmental implications not just for marine life but for humans. These chemicals work their way up through the food chain and get more concentrated the higher up they go. When dolphins and whales eat fish with concentrations of the chemicals, the toxic elements enter their bodies. Dolphins eat a variety of fish and shrimp in these marine environments and so do humans.”

-Dr. Annie Page-Karjian, D.V.M., assistant research professor and clinical veterinarian, Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute


Journal Reference: Annie Page-Karjian, Catherine F. Lo, Branson Ritchie, Craig A. Harms, David S. Rotstein, Sushan Han, Sayed M. Hassan, Andreas F. Lehner, John P. Buchweitz, Victoria G. Thayer, Jill M. Sullivan, Emily F. Christiansen, Justin R. Perrault. Anthropogenic Contaminants and Histopathological Findings in Stranded Cetaceans in the Southeastern United States, 2012–2018. Frontiers in Marine Science, 2020; 7 DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2020.00630



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*Here are a few of the scientific study findings on triclosan:

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Chemicals in personal care products linked with early puberty in girls: study

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