Sick animals and sick people can tell us a lot about the health of our environment. A study in Denmark is raising red flags about prion contamination. There could be a common thread between between the neurodegenerative disease and infectious waste. The whales are serving as canaries in a the proverbial coal mine.
People are contaminating the seas with prions and then we get the prions back when we eat the whales and other vulnerable species. We also are getting prions back when we recycle infectious waste on land via something called biosolids. This reckless practice is putting deadly prions directly into our food and water supplies. It’s bioterrorism.
Whales have too much intellectual, social and navigational capacity to run aground en masse unless extremely sick and disoriented. There have been several high-profile stranding events around the world in the past few years alone. An alarming number of whales are washing up on Alaska’s shores now. As mammals high on the food chain, their health is a good indicator of environmental health. We should be testing those that die much more rigorously for toxic buildup and disease. Whales are downstream from billions of people, so they are in a position to serve as unique bio-indicators (canaries in the proverbial coal mine).
These beached whales and dolphins are the oceans’ version of canaries in coal mines. Their bodies are like giant sponges that can offer insight into the health of the ocean and the planet.
For example, sick and dead whales might be able to shed light on the Alzheimer’s disease epidemic that is exploding exponentially around the globe. Thanks to reckless sewage disposal practices around the world, unstoppable prions are being dumped in our watersheds and waterways on an industrial scale. If the prion pathogen associated with Alzheimer’s and many related neurodegenerative diseases is present in whales and dolphins, it’s further confirmation of the scope and spread of these killer proteins. Unfortunately, that critical tests are not taking place on the whales and dolphins now. Therefore, people continue to serve as the canary in the coal mine.
As with humans and other mammals, whales and dolphins are vulnerable to prion disease. Prion disease has many names, including Alzheimer’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) and Parkinson’s disease. In livestock, it’s known as mad cow disease. In deer, it’s being called chronic wasting disease. They all are forms of what is called transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE). TSEs are deadly and unstoppable. The prion pathogen behind them and the diseases themselves are being mismanaged globally. Our oceans are the holding pond for those that runoff the land with water.
At least one dolphin has been found with prion disease, but testing is severely lacking. Since dietary factors are clearly linked to neurological disease, we can learn more about the health of whales by studying the people who eat them. In turn, the health of the whales can shed light on the health of our food and water supplies upstream. A pioneering researcher is conducting such research now to better understand human health, the health of our oceans and the connections between those factors.
Maria Skaalum Petersen is working to shed light on the connection between sick seas, sick whales and the people who consume them. Petersen is a researcher in the Department of Occupational and Public Health in the Faroe Islands health service. One of her projects has included a comparison of the prevalence of Parkinson’s disease (part of the TSE spectrum) in the Nordic countries.
She found that Parkinson’s disease is twice as prevalent on the Faroe Islands as in Norway and other Nordic countries. A traditional diet on the Faroe Islands typically includes pilot whale meat. Like humans, pilot whales are at the top of the food chain and could be consuming sick fish. Humans could be transmitting the disease to sea mammals and they could be giving it back.
Predators, including some whales, are high on the food chain. Predators that consume predators are consuming the toxic build-up from every animal ever consumed. Therefore, predators (and the people who consume them) often serve as an excellent indicator of the health of an entire ecosystem, including prion contamination.
Not all whales are created equal, though. The whale meat sold in Norway and Iceland is mostly from minke whales, a species that has a diet much lower in the food chain. This means they do not accumulate as many contaminants or prions as pilot whales. This means that the risks associated with whale meat is slightly less for the people in Norway. Norway still has a fairly high rate of neurological disease.
Baleen whales feed by filtering zooplankton and krill into their mouths as they swim. In essence, they are vegetarians. Eating lower on the food chain lowers their prion exposure, but it doesn’t make them immune to the prion problem.
This study indicates that there is prion accumulation in whales–some more than others. It indicates that prions are in our oceans and onward upstream. It indicates that prions are in our food and water supplies and reckless sewage management is contributing to the problem. It reminds us of the hazards associated with wastewater reuse, sewage sludge disposal and biosolids in our communities and watersheds and the oceans below.
What can we learn from the Faroe Islands and whale meat? Prions are building up in the environment and in mammals now. This is a battle of pathway management. Time to manage the contamination is running out. Sewage mismanagement, including agricultural and industrial waste, is contributing to the problem.
If whales could talk, they would tell us to put this toxic soup in a much safer place. Presently, we are recycling sewage sludge, biosolids and reclaimed wastewater throughout our watersheds. We are contaminating food and water supplies. We are pissing in the pool. We’re being fed lies and prions. Save the world. Save the whales. Save yourself.
Read more about the Alzheimer’s disease epidemic in Nordic and Baltic states, including Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Norway.