THREATS TO WHALES – POLLUTION
By Amelia Meyer
Whales are susceptible to the pollution of their watery habitats and have, sadly, absolutely no control of this endangering factor. There are two main types of pollution that affect these mammals (as well as many other marine species) the most. These are 1) physical pollution and 2) noise pollution.
Every day, human beings produce toxic and chemical wastes via industrial activities, transport, and so on. These wastes are sometimes intentionally discarded into the sea or landfills. In other instances, they permeate the air and soil, which then carry them into the ocean in more insidious ways. Either way, they become part of the natural environment of the whales.
Common chemicals that poison the world’s marine life include PCB’s (Polychlorinated biphenyl, used in dielectric and coolant fluids, but now banned in many places around the world), PBDE’s (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or flame retardants), dioxins (highly toxic by-products of a number of industrial processes), and furans (a highly flammable toxic compound that is believed to be cancer-causing).
The whales may be exposed directly to these chemicals in the water, or may ingest them in the food that they eat. This causes major problems in the 1) endocrine system of the mammals, which then disrupts their reproductive and developmental processes, and 2) immunotoxicity, making them unable to fight off diseases and illnesses (including cancer). The toxins absorbed are practically impossible to metabolise. Today, Killer Whales are recognised as being one of the most toxic species in existence.
Oil spills are also a major issue, as whales are apparently unable to recognise the layer of oil on the water’s surface as being a danger. In addition to being extremely toxic when consumed, the oil also sticks to the baleen plates of certain whale species, preventing them from being able to take in any food. Oil spills wipe out massive proportions of whales (and other animals) when they occur.
Noise pollution refers to the manmade noises that occur in the water and that interfere with the sonar and audible communication used by the whales. Sound is carried particularly well by the water, which is denser than air. So, even sounds that are usually quite soft to the human ear are carried further and louder by the water.
Whales use clicks, sonar and “songs” to communicate with one another, to navigate, and to find food. However, when there are the noises from shipping vessels, sonar devices, and industrial activities, the natural sounds of the whales are masked, preventing communication and accurate navigation.
In addition, many of the manmade noises are so loud and jarring that they damage the ear canals of the whales, even causing internal bleeding and, as a result, death. This is a tragic side-effect of human interference.
As responsible human beings, we have the obligation to play our part in protecting the marine life that is left in our oceans. Here are some practical steps that we can all take:
*Choose products that are free of hazardous chemicals like PBDE’s, and non-toxic or organic cleaning products for the home and office.
*Recycle and re-use wherever and whenever possible.
*Do not burn wood that has been treated, or any kinds of plastic or rubber.
*Discard electronic equipment in a responsible manner, researching local companies that can recycle them.
*Never pour oil or chemicals down the drain or onto the ground. Rather, find out about local companies that can dispose of these in an environmentally responsible way.
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