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Toxic Soup: Chemicals of Concern for Humans and Orcas

Five classes of chemicals in consumer products are emerging as particular concern for the health of both humans and orcas. These chemicals can cause cancer, disrupt hormones, and suppress the immune system, and are showing up in our food, house dust, and bodies, and get passed on in the womb to fetuses and through breastfeeding to newborns.

Many of the same chemicals persist in the environment and build up in the food chain and affect the health of wildlife, including the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. Governor Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force identified toxic chemicals as a major threat to orcas because chemicals can impact orca health and reduce the availability of Chinook salmon, a preferred food source.  

Of particular concern for the most vulnerable populations, like kids and orcas, are five classes of chemicals in consumer products: nonstick PFAS, toxic flame retardants, PCBs, phthalates, and phenolic compounds, including bisphenol A (BPA).

Widespread Use

These classes of chemicals are widely used and scientists are finding them throughout our homes and environment. (Find out more about how chemicals in consumer products get into our homes and environment .)

Chemicals from each of these classes have been detected in people, breast milk, house dust, fish and wildlife, wastewater treatment plant discharges, storm water runoff, surface water, and sediments.

Health and Environmental Concerns

Health and environmental impacts associated with these chemicals are cause for concern. Below is a chart of some of the main concerns with these chemicals.

Chemical of Concern


Key Facts

Human Health Effects

Environmental Concerns



 Food packaging

 Firefighting foams

Nearly every person in the US has these industrial chemicals in their bodies.

Exposure to PFAS has been linked to immune suppression and die-offs in marine mammals.

Kidney and testicular cancer

Thyroid disease




Immune suppression

Food web impacts


Personal care products

Soft plastics

Vinyl toys, flooring, and other products

Due to constant recontamination, phthalates increased in Commencement Bay sediments despite years of cleanup.

Phthalates in household products can get into the environment via laundry water and wastewater.

Reproductive toxicity

Early puberty

Learning disabilities

Hormone disruption

Increased mortality in fish

Organohalogens & Other Flame Retardants of Concern

Foam products


Children’s toys

Loading of TCPP flame retardants to the Columbia River from a single waste water treatment plant was estimated at up to 250 pounds per year.

Toddlers can have new generation flame retardants in their bodies at levels up to 5 times that in their mothers.

Thyroid disruption

Lower IQ






Indirectly produced in some dyes and inks

Detected in packaging, paper products, and paints

Young orcas have the highest levels of persistent toxics like PCBs, likely because their mothers transfer them during pregnancy and in milk.


Immune suppression

Reproductive effects

Reproductive effects

Immune system effects

Harm to brain development

Alkylphenols (APEs)

Personal care products including shampoo, lotions, and cosmetics

Detergents, cleaning products


APEs have been found at some of the highest concentrations in wastewater treatment plant discharges, as well as in house dust.

Hormone disruption

Reproductive effects

Altered immune function

Reproductive effects, possibly leading to disruption of fish populations
Bisphenols (including bisphenol A)

Food cans


BPA has been detected in Puget Sound fish, potentially contributing to feminization and reproductive problems.

Hormone disruption


Learning issues

Behavioral effects

Reproductive effects, possibly leading to disruption of fish populations

A printable chart of these chemicals is available for download. For more in-depth information on these chemicals, visit the Chemicals of Concern section of this website.

Time for Action

In 2019, the Washington State Legislature has the opportunity to pass legislation that stops these chemicals at their source, preventing pollution before it contaminates our homes and environment. The Pollution Prevention for Our Future Act authorizes the Department of Ecology to reduce the use of classes of chemicals that are of particular concern to vulnerable populations and species in consumer products.

It’s the bold action we need to protect orcas and humans.