Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) in British Columbia, Canada, and Washington State, USA, reveal a combination of local and global polychlorinated biphenyl, dioxin, and furan signals



The harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) can serve as a useful indicator of food web contamination by persistent organic pollutants (POPs) because of its high trophic level, wide distribution in temperate coastal waters of the Northern Hemisphere, and relative ease of capture. In 1996 through 1997, we live-captured 60 harbor seal pups from three regions, spanning remote (Queen Charlotte Strait, BC, Canada), moderately industrialized (Strait of Georgia, BC, Canada), and heavily industrialized (Puget Sound, WA, USA) marine basins straddling the Canada-United States border. Biopsy samples of blubber were taken and analyzed for congener-specific polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs), and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs) by using high-resolution gas chromatography-high-resolution mass spectrometry. Harbor seals in Puget Sound were heavily contaminated with PCBs, whereas seals from the Strait of Georgia had relatively high concentrations of PCDDs and PCDFs. Pattern evaluation and principal components analysis suggested that proximity to sources influenced the mixture to which seals were exposed, with those inhabiting more remote areas being exposed to lighter PCB congeners (those with lower Henry's law constant and KOW) that disperse more readily through atmospheric and other processes. Total toxic equivalents to 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin for the PCBs, PCDDs, and PCDFs suggest that Puget Sound seals are at greatest risk for adverse health effects, and that PCBs represent the class of dioxinlike contaminants of greatest concern at all sites.