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Marine Mammals, Toxic Chemicals, and a Mom

1024 683 Holly Lohuis

As a marine biologist and marine educator who works with Jean-Michel Cousteau and the Ocean Futures Society (OFS) team, I’m fortunate that every day is an exciting adventure. Over the years I have spent much of my time on the open ocean with whales and dolphins, experiencing ocean life up close. When I am not out on expedition, I love the opportunity to spend time in the classroom relaying the important message that we are all intrinsically connected in the web of life and we are all dependent on a healthy blue planet.  Through my work, I’ve become a strong advocate for protecting our oceans and that includes for me minimizing the use of single use plastics and being mindful of potentially toxic chemicals that are known to harm complex marine animals.

Back in 2008, while filming for a PBS special, Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Adventures: “Call of the Killer Whale,” our investigation into the impacts toxic chemicals have on the ocean and aquatic life led us to question what our own body burden load was of synthetic, industrial and toxic chemicals.  We’ve learned that levels of persistent toxic chemicals like PCBs, DDT, and PBDEs (also known as flame retardants) are showing up in many marine species, so what about ourselves?

We spent the summer interviewing acoustic biologists, fisheries mangers, First Nation elders and commercial fisher folks who all shared their knowledge and passion for killer whales and the importance of keeping their local environment of the Pacific Northwest healthy and productive.   But it was while interviewing a marine mammal toxicologist, Dr. Peter Ross, that we learned the disturbing fact that one of these populations of orcas who frequently visits these waters are the most polluted orcas in the world.   Their toxic load included dozens of industrial chemicals, including PBDEs.  Dr. Ross’ research showed these PBDEs are doubling in populations of harbor seals and killer whales in the Pacific Northwest.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, Carrie Vonderhaar- OFS chief photographer, myself, and my then- four-year-old son Gavin decided to team up with California EPA and participate in a pilot program to screen our blood and urine to reveal our “body burden” for as many as 30 synthetic, man-made chemicals that are also bioaccumulating in the marine environment.

The caption can go here.

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The results were alarming. I was horrified to see how contaminated we were.  In these findings that still bring me to tears, I learned that my son’s levels of toxic flame retardants were off the charts.  It appears that Gavin and I may have been exposed to these flame retardants through furniture, car seats, electronics and other household items.  If we were, then you were too.

My concern as a mother is that we really do not know what these numbers mean in terms of children’s long-term health.  It’s very upsetting for me to think chemical companies are using our kids as guinea pigs, allowing potentially toxic chemicals to be added to commercial products without being tested for potential health impacts on people, animals and the environment.  Many of these chemicals are not even listed on product information labels.  It’s not fair.  I want answers. We all deserve to have access to accurate information pertaining to products we are buying.   It’s shocking for me to read about recent studies that have shown that many toxic flame retardants affect neurological development, and that even low-dose exposures have led to reduced sperm counts in male rats, lowered IQ points in children, and disrupted thyroid functions.   This information was never readily available before I bought many home furnishings and baby products laced with PBDEs.

We need to find a solution to the threats posed to life on this planet from toxic chemicals.  I believe change can come only with an honest dialogue with policymakers, parents, environmental advocates, manufacturers, and the chemical industry. We need to all work together and be proactive and provide a safe environment for us all.  And most importantly, we cannot wait to find a cure for dangerous chemicals after they are in the environment and in us.

Seven easy steps you can take to reduce exposure to toxic flame retardants: