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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.

Lake sediments in Greenland show mercury concentrations are three times higher than in pre-industrial times. Globally, 5,000 tons of mercury are present in the air at any time.

In addition to known pollutants, newly-detected toxins were added to the list. Among those were flame retardants that affect brain development and weaken immunity, and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), a stain repellant. PFOS, which was recently found in the livers of northern Alaskan bears, is of particular concern because of its "extreme persistence." "It does not seem to break down under any circumstance," the authors said.

Many of these chemicals persist longer here than in other regions because of the frigid climate and the lack of soil and vegetation to absorb pollution. Even small amounts of toxins go a long way since northern animals accumulate them over a lifetime in the fat they store to survive the extreme cold.

Chemicals in Breast Milk

Inuit people are particularly at risk because the staples of their diet include animals that sit high on the food chain, like seal, whale, and fish, that have absorbed large quantities of contaminants. Chemicals have also been found in breast milk.

There was some good news. Since the introduction of non-leaded gasoline in North America in the 1970s, lead levels have dropped steadily in Greenland ice core samples. But tests on animals, from moose in the Yukon Territory to Swedish reindeer, show little change in the amount of lead stored in body tissues.

Steps are being taken to address the problem. In 2001, the United Nations Environment Programme identified the most dangerous pollutants and initiated global negotiations, a move that created the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an international treaty to ban these chemicals. As of July, Canada, Iceland, Norway and Sweden had ratified the agreement.

WWF says that toxic chemicals are slowly poisoning some of Earth's most unique residents, and is urging the United States and Russia to act. "Without a global ban, we can't protect indigenous communities and wildlife in the Arctic," said Smith. "The U.S. and Russia need to stop ignoring the scientific evidence and ratify the Stockholm Convention."

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