'Silent Spring' for the Arctic?

Posted: 15 June 2006

The Arctic ecosystem is being ravaged by chemicals that may lead to a "silent spring" scenario in this once pristine environment, with the survival of wild animal populations threatened, a leading conservation agency warned today.

Polar bear being tested for synthetic chemicals in the Arctic region. Photo:  WWF-UK
Polar bear being tested for synthetic chemicals in the Arctic region. Photo: WWF-UK
Polar bear being tested for synthetic chemicals in the Arctic region.© WWF-UK
Scientific evidence is increasingly showing that synthetic chemicals from the industrialised world are building up in the Arctic and causing serious health problems for polar bears, seals, whales and birds, a new WWF report - Killing Them Softly - says.

These health issues range from skeletal deformities, skin diseases, cancers and immune system problems in arctic mammals to reproductive and behavioural problems in birds which sometimes alter their ability to raise young. The Arctic is particularly affected by global distillation, meaning that though none of these chemicals are produced or used there, they find their way to the arctic and build-up there.

Mass contamination

Commenting on the report, Elizabeth Salter Green, director of WWF-UK's Toxics Programme said that if the problem is not brought under control by proper regulation the impacts on the arctic could be similar to those noted in Silent Spring - Rachel Carson's 1962 book, which highlighted collapses of bird populations due to pesticides in the environment. Silent Spring is widely credited with kick-starting the global environment movement.

"What we are seeing here is a mass contamination of arctic wildlife that we believe is making these animals less capable of surviving the harsh arctic conditions and the impacts of climate change" she said.

Chemicals from the industrialised world that build-up in the Arctic are causing serious health problems for seals and other Arctic wildlife. Photo: WWF-UK
Chemicals from the industrialised world that build-up in the Arctic are causing serious health problems for seals and other Arctic wildlife. Photo: WWF-UK
Chemicals from the industrialised world that build-up in the Arctic are causing serious health problems for seals and other Arctic wildlife.© WWF-UK
"Chemical contamination of our environment is spiralling out of control because of poor global chemicals regulation, and if we fail to sort this disaster out we could be heading for a 'silent spring' scenario in the arctic where wildlife populations are unable to reproduce effectively. This, coupled with the impacts of climate change, could spell the end for the Arctic as we know it."

The chemicals that have been found in arctic wildlife come from industrial, agricultural and consumer products and include flame retardants used in electrical equipment and furniture, perfluorinated chemicals used in the manufacture of non-stick coatings and in fire-fighting foam - like that used in the recent Buncefield oil fire in the UK - banned pesticides such as DDT and other banned chemicals like PCBs - which are similar in chemical structure to some modern flame retardants.

Industrial lobbying

Although it is likely to be many decades before research can provide categorical proof of all the impacts of chemical contamination on Arctic wildlife populations, the research to date is of great concern to the scientific community.

Elizabeth Salter Green added: "We have a once in generation opportunity to properly control these chemicals in Europe with the new REACH legislation that is going through the EU at the moment, but there is a real risk that this will be watered down by chemical industry lobbying. Politicians need to understand that the result of this legislation will impact on wildlife in the Arctic - and the rest of the world - as well as protecting human health."

Source: WWF International

The images used with this article are copyright protected and can only be used to illustrate this article, dated 15 June 2006. Any other subsequent rights are not allowed and are subject to approval by WWF International and by the photographer(s) concerned.

Related links:

Arctic pollution - the human price

Pollution soaring to crisis levels in Arctic

Poisoning the purity of the Arctic

Toxic chemicals threaten Arctic