COMMENT: Arctic pollution - the human price

Posted: 19 February 2004

Author: Jackie Alan Giuliano

Most of us have heard about environmental pollutants entering our bodies, and it is becoming almost common knowledge that we all have some level of toxic substances in our blood, just from breathing the air.

But what group of people would you think fit this description: 200 hazardous compounds in their bodies causing birth defects, lowered intelligence, and myriads of health problems; Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury levels far exceeding international health guidelines; babies who suffer high rates of infections, reduced intelligence, and poor memory skills; mothers with seven times more PCBs in their breast milk than others?

You might be inclined to answer that these must be people who live adjacent to a chemical plant along the Mississippi River or families who live next to farms with heavy pesticide use. You would be wrong in both cases.

The people who are suffering from the waste products of a consumer culture gone wild live in the last place you would expect such pollution to reach - the North Pole.

Greenland waters
Greenland waters
The once-pristine waters of the Arctic show evidence of contamination from sources around the world.© Greenland Guide

In Greenland, where the Arctic Ocean meets the North Atlantic, a 4,000 year old society lives, part of an Arctic population estimated to top 650,000. About 90,000 Inuit live in Eastern Canada and Greenland, a territory of Denmark under its own home rule government. Other such indigenous people live spread across eight nations, speaking dozens of languages.

And they are dying.

Northbound winds, ocean currents, and rivers carry deadly chemicals that originate in the cities of North America, Europe, and Asia. In the Arctic, the frozen sea is a veritable toxic chemical storage vault. The cold temperatures and minimal sunlight result in long lifetimes for contaminants.

The contaminants have an easy pathway up the food chain into human bodies. First, microscopic zooplankton consume the chemicals. Zooplankton eat their own weight in 2.2 days. Phytoplankton eat the zooplankton, eating 10 times their own weight in 2.2 days. Tiny crustaceans known as copepods eat millions of phytoplankton, small fish eat scores of copepods, big fish eat the small fish, and so on.

The marine mammals and people who eat those fish are consuming a large amount of toxic substances from this process, known as bioaccumulation.

The Arctic inhabitants' main diet is almost exclusively marine mammals and has been for thousands of years. Urban dwellers, although they live in closer proximity to pollution, consume mostly land based foods and no marine mammals or other predators near the top of the food chain. Ironically, the "natural" food of the Arctic turns out to be the carrier for the industrialized waste of an entire planet.

Umbilical cord blood in the newborns of remote Greenland villages and the breast milk of their mothers have PCB and mercury levels 20 to 50 times higher than levels found in urban areas of the United States and Europe. This was reported in 2003 by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, an international organization established in 1991 to implement components of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy.

The flame retardant chemical PBDE, used worldwide in everything from furniture to infant pajamas, is found in Inuit blood. The United States is the major source for that chemical, while the mercury that is contaminating the Arctic peoples comes mostly from the burning of coal in power plants, most of which are in Asia.

Greenland is in the direct path of winds from North America and Europe, getting the world's largest dose of airborne contaminants.

These indigenous people rarely eat imported food and some consume as much as a pound of contaminated seal and whale meat each week. They eat marine mammals and seabirds an average of 36 times a month.

Indigenous populations in the Arctic. Photo: Environmental Health Perspectives
Indigenous populations in the Arctic. Photo: Environmental Health Perspectives
Indigenous populations in the Arctic are the most affected by contamination of their traditional food sources such as caribou, seal, and fish.© Environmental Health Perspectives

The Inuit claim that they are only able to survive in their cold, hostile environment because of the food they eat, which, they say, warms them from within. The large amount of Omega-3 fatty acids they consume as a result of their diet has resulted in heart disease and diabetes being virtually unknown among the Inuit who eat traditional foods. Those who have switched to eating more and more imported processed foods are showing signs of increased heart disease.

In the 25 years I have studied and written about environmental issues, none has saddened me more than the human disaster taking place in the Arctic. Society's disconnection from the natural world, the cycles of life, and the rhythms of nature are nowhere as evident. Our daily denial of the profound impact that our reliance on economic systems has on every human and animal on Earth will be the undoing of us all.

If we lack motivation to change our consumption patterns and demand that industry clean up its act to help ourselves, then we should do it for the people of the Arctic - people who take no part in our industrialized world.

How can we tolerate creating a situation where the bodies of the Greenland Inuit contain the highest level of industrial contamination on planet Earth? How can we tolerate the fact that the breast milk of these people would be classified as hazardous waste?

I don't know anymore what it will take to change the insidious destruction of our world. Education, awareness, guilt, all factors that you would expect might change things, seem to have little or no effect on the average consumption-intoxicated citizen of a developed country.

So what do we do? Maybe we can first choose to agree that what is happening to the Inuit is wrong. It won't save them, but it is a start.

Dr Jackie Alan Giuliano is a writer and teacher in Seattle and the author of Healing Our World: A Journey from the Darkness Into the Light. His new book of photographs and thoughts on interconnectedness, Of This Earth, Reflections on Connections, is now available. You can send your thoughts and comments to him at: and visit his website at:

This commentary is reproduced with permission from the Environment News Service (ENS). © Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.

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