It's whales today, but it could be you tomorrow

Industrial pollution along Canada's southeastern coast and its fatal results form the theme of BBC's Death on the St Lawrence.

Published: Tuesday 15 June 1993

GIVEN Doordarshan's current preoccupation with movies for entertainment, it seems to have cheerfully tossed science and environment programmes out through the window. Nothing notable has been shown on the small screen in recent months except for a film on the Narmada dam, already reviewed in this column. Fortunately, Star Plus and BBC rate science and environment important enough to keep up a steady flow of programmes on these topics.

In May, BBC ran a three-part series called Nature, the first of which was sub-titled Death on the St Lawrence. It deals with the industrial toxins that are slowly killing graceful white Beluga whales off Canada's southeastern coast. According to the film, the perpetrators of this environmental crime are some of the world's wealthiest companies, whose discharge of toxic wastes has turned this North American river into a disposal drain.

Death on the St Lawrence explores the cost of the region's industrial prosperity. Companies have thrived here at the cost of the surroundings and Beluga whales dying is a barometer of the pollution that is choking this important waterway. Autopsies of more than 100 dead whales show they suffered from cancer and from infections not usually found in whales. As a local biologist says, "If you find a 30-year-old whale dead on the beach and you look at its toxic compounds, you get the story of the St Lawrence river in the last 30 years."

The film identifies as the most damaging chemicals a fire retardant named PCB that is used worldwide even though it is linked to cancer, and Myrex, traces of which can be found even in the Niagara Falls and large amounts of which have leaked into the St Lawrence. In fact, the death of the Belugas is an advance warning that other species, notably humans, are endangered. What the film brings out is that the problem is not just one of dying whales, but of who will be the next victim?

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