Pollutants are not to blame for once

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  • Published: Jul 15, 2014
  • Author: Steve Down
  • Channels: Atomic / Base Peak / MRI Spectroscopy / UV/Vis Spectroscopy / Infrared Spectroscopy / NMR Knowledge Base / Raman / Chemometrics & Informatics / Proteomics / X-ray Spectrometry

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Sea turtles can be affected by a debilitating disease called fibropapillomatosis which causes tumours to grow about their bodies. Although they are benign, the tumours can grow so large that they affect their mobility and sight, which impairs their ability to feed and leaves them vulnerable to attack by prey. The disease is thought to be caused by a virus but marine pollutants are suspected of playing a role too, partly because it has a higher incidence in areas where the water quality is poor.

The group of pollutants that has come under most suspicion are the persistent organic pollutants (POPs), a series of chemicals that persist in the environment and which accumulate in living organisms, moving up the food chain. The principal suspects are the polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) which are now banned but were used widely as flame retardant chemicals. That was until a new study cast doubt upon the theory.

It appears that, for once, pollutants cannot be blamed for something that has gone wrong in the environment, at least not the POPs. A team of scientists from Hawaii and a NIST lab at South Carolina used GC/MS to examine sea turtles for different classes of POPs, including PBDEs, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlordanes and DDE, as well as a number of halophenols. A total of 164 compounds were measured in turtle plasma.

They looked at turtles afflicted by the disease that were captured around four Hawaian islands, as well as some stranded turtles that had been severely affected by the disease and had to be put down. Surprisingly, the concentrations of the pollutants did not increase at all with the prevalence of the disease. In fact, the levels were lower than those that had been found in other sea turtles.

Although the POPs probably do not trigger fibropapillomatosis, they might still have an effect by contributing to its progression by suppressing the immune system. Alternatively, they might be damaging vital organs due to their own toxic effects. However, none of this has been proven.

One further finding was the novel discovery of halophenols in sea turtles, which should be investigated more closely to try and decipher their origins and their effects on the creatures.

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