How many contaminants are found in belugas?

Several dozen toxic chemicals of man-made origin have been discovered in St. Lawrence belugas tissues since 1982. While many of these contaminants likely have an impact on the beluga’s health, their precise effect remains unknown.

To go through the looking glass

Samples are removed from the fatty tissue, the liver and other organs of beluga carcasses found along the shores of the St. Lawrence. These samples are then analyzed in various Canadian laboratories.

In short

Concentrations of toxic contaminants found in the tissues of St. Lawrence belugas are significantly higher than those measured in beluga populations of the Arctic. Concentrations of heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, are 2 to 15 times higher in St. Lawrence belugas. PCB and DDT levels are 25 times higher and mirex levels are 100 times higher. These differences suggest that, by way of the food web, the St. Lawrence belugas have been exposed to several contaminants over a long period of time

Project collaborators

Pierre Béland, SLNIE, Derek Muir, mDepartment of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Ross Norstrom, Environment Canada.


Environment Canada, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Medical Research Council of Canada, Natural Science & Engineering Council of Canada, Université du Québec à Montréal, Canadian Wildlife Toxicology Network, Wildlife Toxicology Fund, World Wildlife Fund Canada.

Scientific papers

Béland, P. 1996. The beluga whales of the St. Lawrence River. Scientific American May 1996: 74-81.

Béland, P., S. DeGuise, C. Girard, A. Lagacé, D. Martineau, R. Michaud, D. C. G. Muir, R. J. Norstrom, É. Pelletier, S. Ray et L. R. Shugart. 1993. Toxic compounds and health and reproductive effects in St.Lawrence beluga whales. J. Great Lakes Res. 19(4): 766-775.

Béland, P., S. DeGuise et R. Plante. 1992. Toxicologie et pathologie des mammifères marins du St-Laurent. Rapport pour le Fonds pour la toxicologie faunique du Fonds mondial pour la nature, mai 1992.

Jarman, W. M., R. J. Norstrom, D. C. G. Muir, B. Rosenberg, M. Simon et R. W. Baird. 1996. Levels of organochlorine compounds, including PCDDS and PCDFS, in the blubber of cetaceans from the west coast of North America. Marine Pollution Bulletin 32(5): 426-436.

Martineau D., K. Lemberger, A. Dallaire, P. Labelle, T. P. Lipscomb, P. Michel, I. Mikaelian. 2002. Cancer in wildlife, a case study: beluga from the St. Lawrence estuary, Québec, Canada. Environmental Health Perspectives. 110(3): 1-7.

Martineau, D., S. DeGuise, M. Fournier, L. Shugart, C. Girard, A. Lagacé et P. Béland. 1994. Pathology and toxicology of beluga whales from the St. Lawrence Estuary, Quebec, Canada. Past, present and future. Sci. Total Environ. 154: 201-115.

Muir, D. C. G., C. A. Ford, B. Rosenberg, R. J. Norstrom, M. Simon et P. Béland. 1996. Persistent organochlorines in beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the St. Lawrence River estuary. I. Concentrations and patterns of specific PCBs, chlorinated pesticides and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxines and -dibenzofurans. Environmental Pollution 93 (2): 219-234.

Muir, D. C. G., C. A. Ford, R. E. A. Stewart, T. G. Smith, R. F. Addison, M. E. Zinck et P. Béland. 1990. Organochlorine contaminants in belugas, Delphinapterus leucas, from Canadian waters. Can. Bull. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 224: 165-190.

Muir, D. C. G., K. Koczanski, R. Rosenberg et P. Béland. 1996. Persistent organochlorines in beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the St. Lawrence River estuary. II. Temporal trends, 1982-1994. Environmental Pollution 93 (2): 235-245.

Norstrom, R. J., D. C. G. Muir, C. A. Ford, M. Simon, C. R. Macdonald et P. Béland. 1992. Indications of P450 monooxygenase activities in beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) and narwhal (Monodon monoceros) from patterns of PCB’ PCDD and PCDF accumulation. Marine Environmental Research 34: 267-272.