Environmental Science & Technology (2005)

DOI: 10.1021/es048709j


Harbor porpoises from the German North and Baltic Seas exhibit a higher incidence of bacterial infections compared to whales from less polluted arctic waters. The potential adverse effect of environmental contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and heavy metals on the immune system and the health status of marine mammals is still discussed controversially. The aim of the present study was to investigate the possible influence of PCB, polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), toxaphene, (p,p‘-dichlorodiphenyl)trichlorethane (DDT), and (p,p‘-dichlorodiphenyl)dichlorethene (DDE) on the immune system of harbor porpoises. Lymphoid organs are influenced by a variety of factors, and therefore special emphasis was given to separating the confounding effect of age, health status, nutritional state, geographical location, and sex from the effect of contaminant levels upon thymus and spleen. Contaminant analysis and detailed pathological examinations were conducted on 61 by-caught and stranded whales from the North and Baltic Seas and Icelandic and Norwegian waters. Stranded harbor porpoises were more severely diseased than by-caught animals. Thymic atrophy and splenic depletion were significantly correlated to increased PCB and PBDE levels. However, lymphoid depletion was also associated with emaciation and an impaired health status. The present report supports the hypothesis of a contaminant-induced immunosuppression, possibly contributing to disease susceptibility in harbor porpoises. However, further studies are needed to determine if lymphoid depletion is primarily contaminant-induced or secondary to disease and emaciation in this cetacean species.