11 May 2021

Toxic firefighting chemicals found in sea lions and seals in Australia

4:00 pm on 11 May 2021

Toxic firefighting chemicals which have been causing contamination issues in New Zealand have now been found in sea lions and fur seals.

mother seal and son baby puppy australian sea lion in kangaroo island

An Australian sea lion pup and parent (file image). Photo: 123RF

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been a long-standing issue and have contaminated the environment, drinking water, eels and more. Firefighting foam containing PFAS were banned in New Zealand in 2006.

Now, a study has found PFAS - in some cases at high concentrations - in seal lion and fur seal pups in Australia.

The chemicals were found in the animals at multiple colonies in Victoria and South Australia from 2017 to 2020.

A media release stated: "Particularly high concentrations of the chemicals were found in newborns - transferred during gestation or via their mothers' milk... researchers believe the seals and sea lions ingested the chemicals through their fish, crustacean, octopus and squid diets."

Sydney School of Veterinary Science research co-leader Dr Rachael Gray said "While it was not possible to examine the direct impacts of PFAS on the health of individual animals, the results are crucial for ongoing monitoring... it is critical that we understand all threats to these species, including the role of human-made chemicals, if we are to implement effective conservation management."

The study noted that because PFAS lasted a long time, they could become concentrated inside the tissues of living things.

"This increases the potential for exposure to other animals in the food chain, particularly top marine mammal predators like seals and sea lions.

"There is also the potential for humans to be exposed to PFAS by eating contaminated seafood, drinking contaminated water, or even through eating food grown in contaminated soil.

"So, not only do PFAS threaten native endangered species like the Australian sea lion - they could pose a risk to humans too."

The study tested 63 seals and sea lions.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs