Toxic chemicals threaten Arctic

Posted: 8 October 2002

Arctic wildlife and some Arctic indigenous people, particularly Inuit, are contaminated by industrial pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides and insecticides, according to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP).

In a report, Arctic Pollution 2002, AMAP says that Inuit in Greenland and Canada have among the world's highest exposures to certain toxic chemicals, transported over a long range.

The study also reveals that polar bears, Arctic fox, seals, killer whales, harbour porpoises, and birds such as glaucous gulls and peregrine falcons, are among the Arctic species contaminated with the highest levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

POPs are known to damage the nervous system, development and reproduction, and are able to travel great distances. In order to combat the threat they pose, the conservation organisation WWF is calling on Russia and the United States to ratify the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. This new international treaty will phase out and ban some of the most dangerous pollutants. Several other Arctic rim countries, including Canada, Norway, and Sweden, have already ratified this important convention. "Most of these chemicals come from outside the Arctic, including the Southern hemisphere, and are carried to the Arctic by wind and water currents," said Samantha Smith, director of WWF's International Arctic Programme. "Without a global ban, we can't protect indigenous peoples and wildlife in the Arctic. The US and Russia need to stop ignoring the scientific evidence and ratify the Stockholm Convention."

According to the report, the arctic species with the highest levels of POPs are already showing adverse effects. For example, researchers have linked POPs levels to reduced immune system function, and increased rates of infection, in polar bears and fur seals. WWF believes that the use of toxic industrial chemicals results in slowly poisoning some of the world's unique species.

The report's finding are of special interest to the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), which represents Inuit in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia. "Inuit call on all Arctic states to work together in global meetings to protect the health of Arctic residents, and to renew and expand scientific programmes on contaminant threats to the health and way of life of Inuit and other Arctic indigenous peoples," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, ICC chair.

One of the alarming issues highlighted in the report is the increase in levels of organic mercury found in some parts of the Arctic. The trend is primarily due to increased burning of coal for energy production in South-east Asia, showing once again the tight links between the Arctic - as a recipient of pollutants - and the rest of the world.