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Fireproof Whales and Killer Couches BY JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU
1. ln Queen Charlotte Strait, British Columbia, orcas like “Cosmos” (C17) are among the most contaminated animals in the world. Western Pacific orcas have recently been diagnosed with high levels of PBDEs, or flame-retardants. Photo: © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED 2. In Call of the Killer Whale, Jean-Michel Cousteau and team observed a unique culture of orcas in New Zealand with both different and familiar behaviours, like this magnificent tail slap at Snell’s Beach, New Zealand. Photo: © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED 3. Holly Lohuis, OFS marine biologist, and her four-year-old son Gavin were tested for many of the same contaminants found in killer whales. Their results for toxic PBDE-153 were higher than 95 per cent of the U.S. population, probably due to California’s Technical Bulletin 117, which requires that many products contain flame-retardants. Their results were consistent with other California mothers and children, a situation that is now raising alarms. Photo: © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society.hoto: © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED
In addition, PBDE contamination is now found globally, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and even in octopi from 1,000 feet (305m) deep. The natural world has been invaded with toxic flame-retardants intended for couches and pillows and TV sets. So Ocean Futures Society and I are launching an international campaign to educate the public, to ban the most toxic flame-retardants, and to support all efforts to find and develop safe alternatives when a fire hazard has been demonstrated.
Most immediately, my team and I hope to influence decisionmakers and engage the public in a dialogue to: • Stop the enactment of California’s proposed Technical Bulletin 604, a flammability standard for pillows, comforters, mattress pads, etc. that does not consider the health or environmental impacts of the chemicals or materials likely to be used to meet it. • Support the newly proposed California Senate Bill 772 to end the flammability requirement that has led to the use of toxic or untested flame retardants in baby products (effectively rescinding the part of Technical Bulletin 117 that applies to juvenile products).
Since Killer Whales are top predators in the marine ecosystem, they are vulnerable to the persistent and accumulative effects of toxic flame-retardants. It is now known these PBDEs are doubling in the marine environment and some marine mammal populations every three to five years. Photo: © Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society/KQED
As part of the ongoing PBS series, Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Adventures, the Cousteau team met with scientists investigating the contamination of killer whales with PBDEs, a class of chemicals commonly known as flame-retardants. It launched Jean-Michel and his Ocean Futures Society team into the realm of human health where they found a firestorm of concern and alarm over these chemicals. For more than half a century, my family and I and our teams have shared our discoveries and our concerns about the global ocean with a global public. Any expertise we have gained has been broad, oceanic, and summarized by the creed that “Everything is connected.” Now my team and I are embarking on an aggressive, urgent, international campaign based on what the ocean has revealed during our most recent exploration. Because of our investigation into killer whales, captured in a two-hour PBS special, Call of the Killer Whale, our mission has taken a surprising turn from the ocean into the domain of human health. We are urgently concerned by what is now – increasingly – a global problem, and an impending crisis for the State of California. Our work with top scientists in the field highlights the fact that killer 10
whales are gravely contaminated with a class of toxic flame retardant chemicals called PBDEs. Ninety-five percent of the entire market for PBDEs is a direct result of a California flammability regulation, Technical Bulletin 117. For the last 30 years, TB117 has led to the use of these toxic fire retardants in the foam used in furniture and baby products. But we now know that PBDEs leak from these products into household dust and bioaccumulate so that both orcas and humans have high levels in their bodies. Like their banned predecessor, the PCBs, these flame retardants persist in the environment, concentrate over time, and are toxic, with adverse health effects on both orcas and humans. We cannot ignore the fact that not only are killer whales at risk, even though they are far from the furniture or TVs containing PBDEs, but our own children, both those unborn and growing, are at risk, testing at alarmingly high levels across the country with the highest levels in California. Two kinds of PBDEs, penta and octa, are now recognized by scientists to pose health risks to people and animals – the chemicals have been shown to harm the developing brain, reduce male fertility, alter ovary development, and disrupt liver and thyroid function. Both penta and octa are now banned, but deca remains on the market and is of grave concern.
Overall, we plan to work with the Green Science Policy Institute and other organizations: • To expose the potential threats of toxic flame retardants, such as the PBDEs and chlorinated tris. This cancer-causing chemical was removed from use in children’s pajamas in the 1970s but is now used at high levels in furniture and baby products in California. • To require labeling of the flame retardant chemicals in products so consumers can make informed choices. • To make chemical companies provide health and safety information before they introduce chemicals into consumer products. • To convince politicians to enact chemical policy reform to ensure better health protection for humans, wild animals and the environment. The European Union is setting a standard in banning these chemicals and in demanding that chemical companies be responsible for proving the safety standards of any new products and chemicals. They have passed legislation called REACH on chemicals and their safe use. It deals with the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemical substances. The law entered into force on 1 June 2007. Under REACH, manufacturers and importers will be required to gather information on the properties of their chemical substances, which will allow their safe handling, and to register the information in a central database run by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki. The Agency will act as the central point in the REACH system. It will manage the databases necessary to operate the
Jean-Michel Cousteau (at podium) and his Ocean Futures Society team have launched an international campaign to inform the public on the hazards of toxic PBDE contamination, something they first discovered in studying killer whales. Holly Lohuis (left), OFS marine biologist, and Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council also testified about the urgency of the campaign. Photo: © Karen Keltner, Ocean Futures Society.
system, co-ordinate the in-depth evaluation of suspicious chemicals, and run a public database in which consumers and professionals can find information. The average American has over 100 synthetic chemicals in his or her body, many of which are potentially harmful. To protect our children and our environment, we must stop the use of untested and potentially toxic chemicals in products in our homes. This is not just a story about California – it is the story about all of us because of the simple, but powerful truth that in our world, everything is connected, so we all must be concerned and involved.
Websites for more information: www.oceanfutures.org/ www.toxicflameretardants.org/ www.greensciencepolicy.org/ www.ewg.org/kidsafe divermag.com
Jean-Michel Cousteau's monthly article in Diver Magazine