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Flame retardants in St. Lawrence whales

15 Nov. 2016 – The Mériscope team is very happy! After the second biopsy sampling season in the Marine Park and the St. Lawrence Estuary, we have five new minke whale biopsies to be analyzed in the framework of our contaminant study. These biopsies will allow us to learn more about the accumulation and effects of halogenated flame retardants (HFR) in minke whales and belugas in the St. Lawrence.

Flame retardants

Flame retardants, as their name suggests, are added to many consumer products to retard their flammability and thereby reduce the risk of fire. They are added to many materials and can be found in numerous products: textiles, upholstered furniture, polyurethane foams, carpets, automobile or aircraft seats, electronic components, plastics, etc. However, HFRs are not chemically bonded to these materials and may be released into the environment.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are one of the families of HFRs that has been the most widely used in North America since the 1970s. PBDEs accumulate throughout the food chain and can be found in very high concentrations in marine mammals in the St. Lawrence, notably in belugas, which are year-round residents of the estuary. Several scientific studies have demonstrated that PBDEs in animal species could have an impact on the hormone system, growth, reproduction, behaviour and development.

The use of PBDEs was recently banned in Canada. Initiated in 2006, this regulatory process has led to the production and use by the chemical industry of substitute products known as “emerging” flame retardants. Very little information is available on the quantities used, accumulation in the environment and especially the toxicity of these new contaminants.

Biopsy campaign in the St. Lawrence

The second biopsy campaign, which lasted from June to late October, has been conducted as part of the research project of Anthoine Simond, PhD student in biology at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), directed by Jonathan Verreault of UQAM’s Research Laboratory in Environmental Toxicology (TOXEN) and Magali Houde of Environment and Climate Change Canada. For the past two summers, Antoine has been part of the Mériscope team, which provided the field logistics and biopsy sampling for this cooperative project.

Under permits from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Parks Canada, Dany Zbinden has been using a low-powered crossbow and special biopsy darts to collect small tissue samples from minke whales, shooting at a distance of 12-25 m from the Narval, the research zodiac of the Mériscope. This sampling technique provides researchers with valuable samples while having minimal impact on the health and stress levels of the animals, which typically resume their normal behavior after a few minutes. The Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) also participates in the project by taking skin and fat biopsies from St. Lawrence belugas. The samples collected by Mériscope and GREMM will later be used to study the effects of HFRs on the health of these populations.

Click on the video below to get a closer gimpse into the minke whale biopsy campaign:


Some preliminary results

Thanks to the collaboration of Véronique Lesage (Fisheries and Oceans Canada), skin and fat samples from minke whales and belugas washed up on the shores of the St. Lawrence and Arctic Quebec (Nunavik) have already been analyzed. Initially, multiple PBDEs and six emerging HFRs were detected in these individuals. Overall, the belugas of the St. Lawrence were the most contaminated.

Hopefully, findings of this research will be taken into consideration by policy makers when it comes to regulations for management of chemical pollutants and implementing adequate measures in order to protect our St. Lawrence.

For more information on this research project, take a minute to view Antoine’s award-winning video “My PhD for Dummies”, which has been distinguished in 2016 in a popular science contest of the Chapitre Saint-Laurent:

Photos: Antoine Simond, Markus Eugster, Yves Fabe, Arthur Aubin, Dany Zbinden




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