A Global Assessment of Chromium Pollution Using Sperm Whales (Physeter macrocephalus) as an Indicator Species

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Sperm whale, Chromium, Chromate, Tissue levels, Marine mammal, Physeter macrocephalus


Chromium (Cr) is a well-known human carcinogen and a potential reproductive toxicant, but its contribution to ocean pollution is poorly understood. The aim of this study was to provide a global baseline for Cr as a marine pollutant using the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) as an indicator species. Biopsies were collected from free-ranging whales around the globe during the voyage of the research vessel The Odyssey. Total Cr levels were measured in 361 sperm whales collected from 16 regions around the globe detectable levels ranged from 0.9 to 122.6 μg Cr g tissue−1 with a global mean of 8.8 ± 0.9 μg g−1. Two whales had undetectable levels. The highest levels were found in sperm whales sampled in the waters near the Islands of Kiribati in the Pacific (mean = 44.3 ± 14.4) and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean (mean = 19.5 ± 5.4 μg g−1). The lowest mean levels were found in whales near the Canary Islands (mean = 3.7 ± 0.8 μg g−1) and off of the coast of Sri Lanka (mean = 3.3 ± 0.4 μg g−1). The global mean Cr level in whale skin was 28-times higher than mean Cr skin levels in humans without occupational exposure. The whale levels were more similar to levels only observed previously in human lung tissue from workers who died of Cr-induced lung cancer. We conclude that Cr pollution in the marine environment is significant and that further study is urgently needed.