By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent
OSLO (Reuters) - People who eat whale meat in the remote Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic have high levels of an industrial toxin in their blood in a worrying sign that the pollutant has spread worldwide, scientists said on Thursday.
"This pollution is a new health concern for the Faroese and many populations worldwide," said Philippe Grandjean, an environmental health expert at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Southern Denmark.
"We know very little on the toxicity in humans so far, even less in regard to whales," he told Reuters of polyfluoroalkyl compounds (PFCs), used in products such as water or grease repellents for textiles, fire-fighting foams, or some papers.
A study with scientists in the Faroe Islands, Denmark and the United States showed higher traces of PFCs in the blood of people who ate whales in the Faroes -- between Norway and Iceland -- comparable to those in people in industrial nations closer to the sources of the chemicals.
Pilot whales, a small species caught in the Faroe islands, are at the top of the marine food chain. PFCs apparently build up in their muscles and liver because they consume smaller fish which have in turn absorbed PFCs washed into the seas.
The children and mothers surveyed in the Faroes who did not eat much whale meat did not have such high concentrations.
For one of the nine types of PFCs known as PFOS, "a single dinner with whale meat every two weeks is associated with an increase of 25 percent in the blood concentration," he said.
Initially, widening PFC contamination was thought to come from everyday exposure to items such as textiles or furniture containing PFCs. "Now we are seeing evidence that they are widespread in the environment and building up," Grandjean said.
The study, issued online, would be in August edition of the journal Environmental Science & Technology. A separate study had also shown high levels of PFOS in polar bear livers.
A report by the European Food Safety Authority this week said that some PFCs have produced tumors in rats but do not seem to cause cancers in humans. It said more data was needed. One study has linked PFCs to lower human birth weights.
Grandjean said that a couple of the people in the Faroes survey had blood levels of PFOS that exceeded the safe limit implied by the Food Safety Authority report.
Worries about the dispersal of the chemicals in the environment led 3M Co to change the formula of its stain repellant Scotchgard in 2002 to eliminate use of PFOS.
(Editing by Mariam Karouny)