Manmade chemicals filtering into the natural world are not just a threat to our clean air and drinking water, they are also leading to cancer in wild animals. Scientists have been documenting tumors among animals like sea turtles, Beluga whales and Tasmanian devils for years. Though all these creatures live in different areas of the world, they tend to have one thing in common: exposure to carcinogens.
The sea lions living near San Francisco's Pier 39 are a popular tourist attraction, but many are also suffering from tumors on their hind flippers. Scientists found that sea lions that died of this cancer had an 85% higher concentration of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in their tissue, a toxin used in coolants and electrical transformers. Additionally, their blubber contained unusually high levels of DDT, a pesticide that was banned in 1972. Scientists speculate that many of these sea lions were born near the Channel Islands, the site of a large DDT release.
"The more we contaminate the environment, the more we will see problems," said Frances Gulland, the director of veterinary science at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. "If you dump a pollutant, it doesn't just go away."
Australia's Tasmanian devil population was cut in half during the 1990s due to a widespread cancer that leaves the animals with tumors on their faces. Though researchers have not identified any single cause of this cancer, they suspect a combination of genetics and pollutants.
Still, scientists have hopeful news: animal cancer rates drop dramatically once the toxin is removed from their habitat. In the 1980s, a steel plant in Ohio releasing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) led to high cancer rates among catfish in the Black River. After the plant closed, reported cancers were cut by 75%.