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POPs, Earwax and Environmental Forensics?

By: , Posted on: September 19, 2013

Whales are the largest mammals on earth can travel very large distances as part of their migratory pathway and can live a long time.   This makes them very good sentinel species for monitoring contaminants in the environment.  Scientists have estimated whale ages (for those found dead of course) based on the layers of the earwax plugs of the animals.  It has been estimated that blue whales live on average between 80 and 90 years.  These earwax plugs are lipophilic (fat-like) deposits that accumulate each year.  Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are also lipophilic and with exposure, will accumulate in fatty deposits of animals.  Therefore, as whales swim their migration patterns, earwax in those whales is documenting the POPs that the whale has been exposed to.

Whale Bone

It wasn’t until this past week that scientists connected these lines of evidence to publish the first paper on POPs in whale earwax to assess and date exposure.  A publication by Stephen Trumble and colleagues from Baylor University in the most recent edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) describes their work and the importance of earplug (scientifically known as cerumen lamina) analysis.

The article was able to show a lifetime chronology of exposure for the whale.  This provides a crucial timeline association of exposure for the animals.  With multiple samples, maybe this can provide a monitoring mechanism for concentrations of POPs in the environment.  In addition, these POPs concentrations can be compared to hormone levels to evaluate health parameters and their association with biological endpoints.  Lastly, the POPs in earplugs provides a birth to death record of exposure for each whale.  This is a very unique feature of this type of biomonitoring as a birth to death record in chronological order is not known for any other animal on earth.

This study provides scientists with valuable methods for aging exposure for aquatic species and the aquatic environment.  The aging of exposure is significant for the environmental forensics scientist providing a unique tool at assessing releases of contaminants into the aquatic environment over time.

Environmental Forensics for Persisten Organic Pollutants

A new book is being released in December 2013 entitled Environmental Forensics of Persistent Organic Pollutants.  Chapter 8 of the book, POPs in the Marine and Freshwater Environments, explores in more depth the use of environmental forensics in the aquatic environment  and provides a valuable text for those interested in this topic matter.  The study by Trumble provides further information to the book chapter on how POPs and environmental forensics can be used in the aquatic environment.

Environmental Forensics of Persistent Organic Pollutants is now available for pre-order at the Elsevier Store. Reserve your copy this month and save $50!

About the Author:

Dr. Court SandauDr. Court Sandau (@EnviroCertainty) is the principal of Chemistry Matters, a niche environmental forensics and chemistry consulting company and is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary in the Schulich School of Engineering. Dr. Sandau’s experience includes working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) where he managed a laboratory responsible for the analytical toxicology and exposure assessment of humans to environmental contaminants.

Dr. Sandau also worked at the National Wildlife Research Center measuring contaminants in environmental, wildlife and fish samples with the purpose of examining the biomagnification, biotransformation, and toxicological effects of priority pollutants in the arctic and Great Lakes food webs. Dr. Sandau’s technical expertise includes analytical and environmental forensic chemistry, toxicology and risk assessment. Dr. Sandau has written over 100 publications and given numerous presentations internationally to his peers. Dr. Sandau’s knowledge and expertise are often retained to provide litigation support and expert witness testimony. You can read more about Dr. Sandau and his work at the Chemistry Matters blog.


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