Initial scientific results show Norwegian killer whales are the most toxic mammals in the Arctic, says WWF, the global conservation organization.

Previous research awarded this dubious honour to the polar bear, but a new study shows that killer whales have even higher levels of PCBs, pesticides and a brominated flame retardant.

The results are based on blubber samples taken from killer whales in Tysfjord, a fjord in arctic Norway. This is the first time the findings of the research, carried out by the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI), and partly funded by the Norwegian Research Council, have been revealed. Dr Hans Wolkers, a researcher with NPI, said: “Killer whales can be regarded as indicators of the health of our marine environment. The high levels of contaminants are very alarming. They clearly show that the arctic seas are not as clean as they should be, which, in particular, affects animals at the top of the food chain.”

WWF funded Dr Wolkers to carry out new research from this November to further monitor the levels of dangerous contaminants in the killer whales, including another brominated flame retardant called deca-BDE, used in electronic goods and coatings for household products such as carpets. The findings of this research are expected next year. The appearance of a potentially dangerous brominated flame retardant in the killer whales is of particular concern, because – unlike PCBs and the most harmful pesticides – most hazardous brominated flame retardants are not currently banned. Brominated flame retardants can affect animals’ neurological function, behaviour and reproduction. Brettania Walker, toxics officer with the WWF International Arctic Programme, said: "This new killer whale research re-confirms that the Arctic is now a toxic-sink. Chemicals in everyday products are contaminating arctic wildlife.

The European Council of Ministers, due to vote on REACH on December 13th, must agree to the replacement of all hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives whenever these are available." Helen Bjørnøy, the Norwegian Minister of Environment, said: "The toxic contamination of killer whales clearly shows the result of an unsustainable use of chemicals internationally. This is one of the greatest global environmental threats. The EU ministers now have the possibility to strengthen the chemicals legislation in Europe, and I urge them to use it. It is imperative that the REACH regulation becomes a tool to stop using the most dangerous chemicals." Killer whales are found throughout arctic Norway, including Svalbard and the Barents Sea, but congregate in the Tysfjord area to feed on spawning herring during the winter. This offers an excellent opportunity to sample them in an efficient way.