Intestinal polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon-DNA adducts in a population of beluga whales with high levels of gastrointestinal cancers

Miriam C. Poirier, Stéphane Lair, Robert Michaud, Elena E. Hernández-Ramon, Kathyayini V. Divi, Jennifer E. Dwyer, Corbin D. Ester, Nancy N. Si, Mehnaz Ali, Lisa L. Loseto, Stephen A. Raverty, Judith A. St. Leger, William G. Van Bonn, Kathleen Colegrove, Kathleen A. Burek-Huntington, Robert Suydam, Raphaela Stimmelmayr, John Pierce Wise, Sandra S. Wise, Guy BeauchampDaniel Martineau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were disposed directly into the Saguenay River of the St. Lawrence Estuary (SLE) by local aluminum smelters (Quebec, Canada) for 50 years (1926–1976). PAHs in the river sediments are likely etiologically related to gastrointestinal epithelial cancers observed in 7% of 156 mature (>19-year old) adult beluga found dead along the shorelines. Because DNA adduct formation provides a critical link between exposure and cancer induction, and because PAH–DNA adducts are chemically stable, we hypothesized that SLE beluga intestine would contain PAH–DNA adducts. Using an antiserum specific for DNA modified with several carcinogenic PAHs, we stained sections of paraffin-embedded intestine from 51 SLE beluga (0–63 years), 4 Cook Inlet (CI) Alaska beluga (0–26 years), and 20 beluga (0–46 years) living in Arctic areas (Eastern Beaufort Sea, Eastern Chukchi Sea, Point Lay Alaska) and aquaria, all with low PAH contamination. Stained sections showed nuclear light-to-dark pink color indicating the presence of PAH–DNA adducts concentrated in intestinal crypt epithelial lining cells. Scoring of whole tissue sections revealed higher values for the 51 SLE beluga, compared with the 20 Arctic and aquarium beluga (P = 0.003). The H-scoring system, applied to coded individual photomicrographs, confirmed that SLE beluga and CI beluga had levels of intestinal PAH–DNA adducts significantly higher than Arctic and aquarium beluga (P = 0.003 and 0.02, respectively). Furthermore, high levels of intestinal PAH–DNA adducts in four SLE beluga with gastrointestinal cancers, considered as a group, support a link of causality between PAH exposure and intestinal cancer in SLE beluga. Environ. Mol. Mutagen. 60:29–41, 2019. Published 2018. This article is a U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the USA.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)29-41
Number of pages13
JournalEnvironmental and Molecular Mutagenesis
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2019


  • Delphinapterus leucas
  • PAHs
  • cancer
  • cetaceans
  • chemical carcinogens
  • pollutants

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Genetics(clinical)
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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