Animals often act as sentinels for what’s to come, said the authors of a new study on the “unprecedented” rate of cancer in California’s wild sea lions. While cancer is generally rare in wild animals, 18% to 23% of California sea lions have cancer — one of the highest cancer prevalence in mammals. The sea lions are primarily suffering from urogenital carcinoma (UGC), which has previously been associated with organochlorines such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethanes (DDTs). Chronic dumping of persistent organic pollutants took place off the California coast prior to their ban. In the sea lions, the risk of cancer was found to be 43.57 times higher in those infected with the otarine herpesvirus-1 (OtHV1), along with 1.48 times higher for every unit increase in contaminant concentrations in their blubber. A synergism between the pollutants and later infection with OtHV1 may be driving up cancer rates in the animals, with serious implications for humans.
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