2 June 2017


Researchers have found heart and gout medications, herbicides, pesticides, metals, and industrial chemicals in the blood of Great Barrier Reef green turtles.

Some of the chemicals found cannot be identified.

These are the latest findings from the Rivers to Reef to Turtles project - led by WWF-Australia and supported by major partner Banrock Station Wines Environmental Trust.

The team analysing the chemicals was led by Associate Professor Caroline Gaus and Drs Amy Heffernan and Maria Jose Gomez-Ramos from the Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (QAEHS) – a partnership between The University of Queensland and Queensland Health.

They tested blood collected from green turtles at two urban/developed locations – Cleveland Bay and Upstart Bay – and the more remote Howicks group of islands. Across the three sites there were indications of hundreds of thousands of different chemicals in the green turtles’ blood.

The team narrowed their efforts down and identified – in the green turtles from the urban/developed sites – a long list of chemicals associated with human activities, including:

  • Allopurinol – used to treat gout or kidney stones
  • Milrinone – a heart medication
  • Isoquinoline – used in industrial processes, and adhesives and sealants
  • Guaiacolsulfonate – used in pharmaceuticals
  • Ethiofencarb sulfone – a breakdown product of the carbamate insecticide, ethiofencarb
  • Docosanamide – used industrially as an adhesive, sealant and lubricant

They also found what could be the fragrance traseolide or galaxolide – used in many cosmetic products.

Exposure to chemicals can cause stress and other unwanted side effects in wildlife, and the team found biomarkers indicating inflammation and liver dysfunction in some green turtles.

“Humans are putting a lot of chemicals into the environment and we don’t always know what they are and what effect they are having. We need to be conscious of that,” said Dr Amy Heffernan.

According to the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), there are more than 130 million chemicals registered in the world.

One new chemical is registered in the world every 6 seconds

Each day, 15,000 new chemicals are registered. Databases for environmental contaminants cannot keep up.

“Rivers to Reef to Turtles has revealed to people that the chemicals humans manufacture wind up in the sea and are absorbed by marine life,” said WWF-Australia spokesperson Christine Hof.

Dr Heffernan said the types of chemicals found in the turtles differed between the study sites.

“What you put down your sink, spray on your farms, or release from industries ends up in the marine environment and in turtles in the Great Barrier Reef,” Dr Heffernan said.

Ms Hof said: “Turtles could be used as a biomonitoring tool to reveal which chemicals are entering Great Barrier Reef waters and how they are impacting wildlife."

Banrock Station Wetland Manager and Environmental Trust panel member, Dr Christophe Tourenq, was on hand in Cleveland Bay this week as the last field trip for the Rivers to Reef to Turtles project got underway.

“Banrock Station is proud to support this project which helps to generate new insights into what is happening with turtles in the Great Barrier Reef."

“I’m sure many members of the public will be concerned by how many chemicals are making their way into these beautiful sea creatures,” he said.


Since 1995, Banrock Station has supported vital conservation efforts across the world, such as the turtle research project with WWF-Australia. To date the Banrock Station Environmental Trust has donated approximately $6 million (AUD) to more than 130 projects in 13 countries. Rivers to Reef to Turtles is supported by major partner Banrock Station Wines Environmental Trust, and involves WWF-Australia, TropWATER (James Cook University), QAEHS/Entox and Vet-MARTI (The University of Queensland), the Queensland Government, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), Griffith University, and other collaborative partners. WWF thanks EHP for their support in this collaborative project and assisting in the sampling process.

WWF-Australia Media Contact:

Mark Symons, Senior Media Officer, 0400 985 571