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Toxic pollution and contaminants in the environment are one of the three threats facing orcas. It comes from untreated stormwater pollution, industrial discharges, and legacy sources from decades ago that are still persistent in the environment. With an abundance of policies addressing toxic pollutants in Washington State this year, along with rising concern over the tire chemical 6PPD-Q and increased focus on how environmental pollution disproportionately impacts low-income and BIPOC communities, this is an opportune time to raise awareness and collectively envision a clean water future. 

For Orca Month this year, we’re focusing on toxics that threaten orcas, salmon, and people. Let’s dive into the difference between toxics and toxins. 

Toxics - add photo?

These substances are human-made, synthetic chemicals often resulting from industrial pollution, pesticides, and plastic waste. Exposure to toxic chemicals can also happen through many of our consumer products including makeup, dental floss, and kitchenware. Toxics can accumulate in the environment, posing significant risks to marine life and human health.

Toxins - add photo?

In contrast, toxins are naturally-occuring and produced by certain living organisms like bacteria, plants, animals, and insects. Think of poisonous mushrooms or bee venom. Toxins also include heavy metals like mercury and arsenic which are naturally occurring chemicals with significant implications for marine life and human health. 

Impacts on Southern Resident Orcas

Toxics such as industrial chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, oil, and sewage continue to impact the health of the Southern Resident orcas. Southern Residents are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world, exhibiting high levels of DDT, PCBs, flame retardants, and other contaminants. Toxics in the environment will work their way up the food chain, building and increasing over time, eventually affecting the health of the orca. Examples of this impact  can be seen in immunity issues and the ability to reproduce. These issues can later impact the offspring, as the pollutants can be passed onto the next generation's offspring through the mother’s milk. 

Bioaccumulation: the buildup of absorbed chemicals in an organism over time. Add infographic?

Biomagnification: the increase in concentration of these chemicals in each organism up the food chain. 

In both processes, chemical concentration increases because organisms cannot break down or excrete these substances as quickly as they are absorbed. Add infographic?

Click the link here to learn more on bioaccumulation vs. biomagnification!

Click the link here to learn more on toxic contaminants impacting orcas and salmon.


Impacts on Salmon

Toxics from stormwater runoff,  sewage, and even car tires have also impacted salmon in the Pacific Northwest, jeopardizing the health and future of salmon populations. A tire-related chemical called 6PPD-quinone has been identified in killing coho salmon, and it is recognized as one of the most toxic chemicals ever seen in the aquatic environment. When a coho salmon is exposed to 6PPD-q, their cardiorespiratory and neurological systems become impaired, which can result in abnormal behavioral symptoms such as surface swimming, loss of equilibrium, and eventually death.

A Call to Action

For more information on how you can help, check out:

Websites and research studies: Add links!

Orca Action Month’s Take Action page

Orca Action Month’s Events & Activities page

Wild Orca's Learn page

Toxic Free Future petition - link forthcoming

Orca Salmon Alliance

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