By Lewis Smith and Willow Smith
Toxic chemicals found in many plastics and household goods have been found at worrying levels in whales in the Mediterranean Sea.
Phthalates are considered to be at high levels when found in concentrations of 300 µg/kg but have been measured in whales in the Mediterranean at levels of more than 1,000 µg/kg.
Male whales were found to have the highest levels of toxins because the females cleared out much of their system when suckling young - and passing the phthalates on to their calves.
The findings were made by researchers working for WWF using samples taken from whales in the Pelagos Sanctuary, the largest marine protected area in the Mediterranean, located between Italy, France and Sardinia.
Conservationists raised their concerns about the concentrations of Phthalates as the first United Nations oceans conference took place in the US. Three million tonnes of the chemicals are produced every year.
Phthalates are found commonly in plastics but are also used in a wide variety of cosmetics including hair spray, nail polish and perfumes. They are also in household items such as paint, medicines, cables, plastic films, floor coverings and shower curtains.
They are linked to several medical conditions including breast cancer, birth defects and infertility.
"The contamination of cetaceans by plastic is of deep concern regarding the state of the ocean and should be a warning for our own health. " said Giuseppe Di Carlo, of the WWF.
The Mediterranean is considered to be the sixth most polluted part of the world for plastics.
Mr Di Carlo added: "The Mediterranean Sea is suffocated everyday by paint, cosmetic products and plastic bags. Our society produces tonnes of plastics with irreversible effects on our oceans.
“WWF urges consumers, industry, governments and coastal cities to eliminate the use of plastic as well as collect and recycle plastic waste.”
In the WWF study the researchers said: “The massive and uncontrolled development of human activity impacts harshly on all ecosystems.
“This pioneering study shows the extent of plastic pollution in the Mediterranean. It reaches and impacts the majority of species, right up to the biggest whales.
“These results confirm the urgent need to put in place measures to reduce the pollution by plastics and other sources of phthalate contamination.”
Among the ceteceans affected in the Pelagos reserve are fin, pilot and sperm whales.
Along with phthalates, they were found to absorb Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) from their diet. They were found to suffer much higher levels of toxins in their bodies than the same species in the Atlantic.
The research team added: “In contrast to POPs, phthalates do not accumulate and are rapidly metabloised. These first results suggest, therefore, a chronic and sgnificant exposure to phthalates.”
Picture: Pilot Whales. Credit: WWF