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Research: Effects On Reproduction Feared As High Chromium Levels Found In Right Whales

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PORTLAND, Maine -- Researchers at the University of Southern Maine (USM) have documented toxic levels of chromium in the endangered right whales of the Gulf of Maine, the first such documentation of chromium exposure in the right whale population.

"Our hypothesis is that environmental contaminants are damaging the whales' DNA, and as a result are interfering with the ability of these species to reproduce and the ability of their offspring to survive," said John Pierce Wise, Sr. of USM, lead author of a report on the findings. "Most studies,” added Wise, “have focused on lead, mercury and other heavy metals. "This is the first to look closely at and document the potential impact of chromium. It is a significant risk factor," said Wise, "and one that could be a part of the puzzle as to why the right whales' reproductive rate is so poor."

Wise is founder of USM's Maine Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health. Wise and his team of researchers investigate the impact of metals and particulates on humans and marine animals.

The results are featured in an article, "Hexavalent Chromium Is Cytotoxic and Genotoxic to the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) Lung and Testes Fibroblasts." The article is scheduled to be published this fall in the journal "Mutation Research - Genetic Toxicology and Environmental Mutagenesis."

The USM researchers, in collaboration with The Ocean Alliance, the New England Aquarium, the Mystic (CT.) Aquarium and others, have been investigating the genetic effects of chromium and other environmental contaminants on North Atlantic right whales. Their work has led to development of cell lines which have been generated from right whale skin, lungs and testes. Data from these sources has increased knowledge of the physiology and toxicology of the right whale, and resulted in the latest findings. The North Atlantic right whale is the most severely endangered large whale, with only about 300 animals left in existence.

Chromium is a common sediment pollutant that is discharged from metal-finishing, leather tanning and textile dyeing industries. It often is found in stainless steel, other alloys, and dyes or paints.

According to Wise, the latest research also indicates that the right whales' exposure to airborne chromium might also be a factor. “We tend to think that ocean air is clear,” said Wise, “however, these findings are the first to suggest that air pollution may be a significant factor for whale health, too. This latest research has identified chromium as a significant risk factor to the health of the right whale population and ought to challenge us to think of the marine environment differently and generate a discussion on how to remediate our air above water environments."

Wise, a 1983 graduate of Portland High School and former environmental toxicologist at Yale, returned to Maine to conduct toxicological and environmental health-related research at USM. Earlier studies by Wise have documented effects of chromium on humans. A paper published in the April 15, 2006 edition of Cancer Research showed how chromium can induce abnormalities in chromosome numbers in human lung cells. The increases in the numbers of chromosomes correlate directly with the increased chromosome numbers seen in lung tumors.

Wise, who holds a Ph.D. in pharmacology from George Washington University, completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Laboratory of Human Carcinogenesis at the National Cancer Institute before joining Yale in 1997. He has been successful in obtaining funding for his cancer-related research, and brought $6 million in research grants to USM, as well as research staff, students and equipment.

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