It has been hypothesized for decades that environmental pollutants may contribute to green sea turtle fibropapillomatosis (FP), possibly through immunosuppression leading to greater susceptibility to the herpesvirus, the putative causative agent of this tumor-forming disease. To address this question, we measured concentrations of 164 persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and halogenated phenols in 53 Hawaiian green turtle (Chelonia mydas) plasma samples archived by the Biological and Environmental Monitoring and Archival of Sea Turtle Tissues (BEMAST) project at the National Institute of Standards and Technology Marine Environmental Specimen Bank. Four groups of turtles were examined: free-ranging turtles from Kiholo Bay (0% FP, Hawaii), Kailua Bay (low FP, 8%, Oahu), and Kapoho Bay (moderate FP, 38%, Hawaii) and severely tumored stranded turtles that required euthanasia (high FP, 100%, Main Hawaiian Islands). Four classes of POPs and seven halogenated phenols were detected in at least one of the turtles, and concentrations were low (often <200 pg/g wet mass). The presence of halogenated phenols in sea turtles is a novel discovery; their concentrations were higher than most man-made POPs, suggesting that the source of most of these compounds was likely natural (produced by the algal turtle diet) rather than metabolites of man-made POPs. None of the compounds measured increased in concentration with increasing prevalence of FP across the four groups of turtles, suggesting that these 164 compounds are not likely primary triggers for the onset of FP. However, the stranded, severely tumored, emaciated turtle group (n = 14) had the highest concentrations of POPs, which might suggest that mobilization of contaminants with lipids into the blood during late-stage weight loss could contribute to the progression of the disease. Taken together, these data suggest that POPs are not a major cofactor in causing the onset of FP.
Additional publication details
Investigating the potential role of persistent organic pollutants in Hawaiian green sea turtle fibropapillomatosis