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Environ Health Perspect. 2002 Mar;110(3):285-92.

Cancer in wildlife, a case study: beluga from the St. Lawrence estuary, Québec, Canada.

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Département de Pathologie et Microbiologie, Faculté de Médecine Vétérinaire, Université de Montréal, St. Hyacinthe, Québec J2S 7C6, Canada.


A population of approximately 650 beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) inhabits a short segment of the St. Lawrence estuary (SLE). Over 17 years (1983-1999), we have examined 129 (or 49%) of 263 SLE beluga carcasses reported stranded. The major primary causes of death were respiratory and gastrointestinal infections with metazoan parasites (22%), cancer (18%), and bacterial, viral, and protozoan infections (17%). We observed cancer in 27% of examined adult animals found dead, a percentage similar to that found in humans. The estimated annual rate (AR) of all cancer types (163/100,000 animals) is much higher than that reported for any other population of cetacean and is similar to that of humans and to that of hospitalized cats and cattle. The AR of cancer of the proximal intestine, a minimum figure of 63 per 100,000 animals, is much higher than that observed in domestic animals and humans, except in sheep in certain parts of the world, where environmental contaminants are believed to be involved in the etiology of this condition. SLE beluga and their environment are contaminated by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) produced by the local aluminum smelters. The human population living in proximity of the SLE beluga habitat is affected by rates of cancer higher than those found in people in the rest of Québec and Canada, and some of these cancers have been epidemiologically related to PAHs. Considered with the above observations, the exposure of SLE beluga to PAHs and their contamination by these compounds are consistent with the hypothesis that PAHs are involved in the etiology of cancer in these animals.

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