Arctic Life Threatened by Toxic Chemicals, Groups Say

By Sharon Guynup
National Geographic Today
October 8, 2002

There's something seriously wrong in the Great White North. Polar bears are birthing fewer cubs. Seals that swim in northern seas carry high levels of mercury and cadmium in the body fat that insulates them from the cold—and animals from reindeer to whales to sea birds also carry industrial chemicals in their bodies. Some Inuit newborns are born with high blood pressure that persists into elementary school.

The reason, according to a new study, is that the Arctic has become a repository for some of the world's most toxic chemicals, and at higher concentrations than previously thought.

Although the brilliant white snow and clear blue Arctic seas appear pristine, small concentrations of industrial chemicals are carried here on air, river, and ocean currents from as far away as Asia and gradually build up.

This is why "the Arctic is a very important area to take the pulse of the globe," said Lars Otto Reiersen, leader of the Norway-based Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP), who co-produced the new report Arctic Pollution 2002 in collaboration with the World Wildlife Federation (WWF).

Nervous System Damage, Weakened Immunity

"[These chemicals] come from us," said Samantha Smith, director of the WWF Arctic Program. "They come from people in industrialized countries, from the factories that make our products and the way that we grow our food."

The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an organization representing Inuit people in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia, expressed concern over the report. The group's chair, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, called for expanded research on threats from toxic industrial chemicals, and asked for international cooperation to protect Arctic indigenous people.

The study showed that levels of some heavy metals like mercury, lead, and cadmium; and persistent organic pollutants (POPs)—toxins like Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs); the insecticide DDT, and dioxins—exceeded previous estimates or hadn't dissipated over time. POPs are chemicals that break down slowly in the environment. They damage the nervous system and interfere with development. They also weaken immunity: fur seals and polar bears with high PCB levels had increased rates of infection.

Mercury Rising

Mercury has risen to dangerous levels. Among some indigenous people, levels are high enough to affect childhood development, causing nerve and brain damage. It may also be affecting the reproduction of peregrine falcons.

"The increase in levels of organic mercury in some parts of the Arctic is primarily due to increased burning of coal for energy production in Southeast Asia, showing once again the tight links between the Arctic—as recipient of pollutants—and the rest of the world," said Reiersen.

Continued on Next Page >>


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