If you think the pollution in New York, Los Angeles or Detroit is scary, consider this: Arctic indigenous peoples often have levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in their blood and breast milk that are 10 times higher than the residents of major American cities.
Individuals living near industrial hubs expect to bioaccumulate a certain amount of toxic chemicals, but for aboriginal peoples living near the Arctic Circle, thousands of miles from the sources of these chemicals, the levels are both astonishing and disturbing.
The pollution is the result of what scientists call the “grasshopper effect”, in which transboundary pollution, dispersing at the point of origin and driven by wind, re-volatilizes (or comes down to earth and oceans) thousands of miles away in the Arctic.
“All indications are that levels of POPs are increasing very dramatically in the Arctic,” says Pamela K. Miller, the executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
“A warming planet, and certainly a warming Arctic, is only going to enhance the mobilization and transport of these chemicals into the Arctic.”
Because many chemical pollutants like POPs are volatile at higher temperatures, their production in developed nations near the equator allows them to vaporize and be transported by prevailing winds toward the cooler Arctic, where they condense on particulates or snowflakes or in raindrops, and fall to the earth.
As global warming increases, chemicals volatize more readily into the atmosphere. Warmer surface temperatures on land and in the oceans alter prevailing winds blowing from the equator north in both hemispheres. This alteration in atmospheric circulation patterns, first documented in 2001, leads to even warmer air over the Arctic and a negative feedback loop that can only get worse as Earth’s temperature rises. As of June 1, the Arctic Ocean’s sea-ice cover was again below the 1979-2000 average.
Due to consumer-driven excesses elsewhere, PBDEs are doubling in the Arctic every seven years, Marla Cone writes in Silent Snow. That’s likely true of perfluorinated chemicals as well, Miller says. She notes that DDT, though banned more than three decades ago, is still bioaccumulating in the Arctic and causing reproductive harm to birds like peregrine falcons.
In fact, perfluorinates have now been linked with infertility in another study that ACAT – a statewide organization aimed at achieving environmental health and justice – will likely use to drive home its message that global pollution is poisoning one of the last, pristine wildernesses and its people.
For example, the Canadian Inuit population was 55,700 in 2000. By 2006, it was 50,485, and the Inuit are considered one of the more stable Canadian First Nation tribes.
Other groups (First Nation Nunavut, Nunavik, Anishanaabe and Cree) are in similar or even more dramatic decline, their populations diminished by poverty and its side effects, climate change and displacement, and the persistence of chemical pollutants which in many cases exceed both national and international health standards for safe exposure. This latter category alone is responsible for many of the reproductive failures, gender imbalances, thyroid problems, immune system failures, behavioral abnormalities, diabetes, cancers and birth defects among the Arctic’s indigenous people.
In Nunavut, the ratio of deaths to live births (15.3 per 1000) is almost three times the national average. A 2008 study by the Alaska State Department of Public Health found birth defects among indigenous peoples two and one-half times that of whites.
A previous study by the UN’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program shows a rate of gender imbalances among indigenous peoples so severely skewed it should serve as a red flag for the future reproductive health of all nations. This is nowhere more apparent than among the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, where female births in 2006 outnumbered male births by two to one, a pattern that started in 1993.
These issues began to garner international attention as early as the 1990s, but efforts to prevent POPs pollution didn’t get underway until 1998, when 100 nations gathered in Montreal under the auspices of the United Nations to draft a treaty banning or controlling the more lethal and persistent chemicals. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, or POPs Treaty, was endorsed in 2001 and finally ratified in 2004.
One central feature of the POPs Treaty is the protocol for adding other pollutants, which accounts for the United States’ continued reluctance to participate in any truly effective way. Former President George W. Bush signed the treaty, but the U.S. was first in line to force a concession requiring the treaty to focus initially on old chemicals – those already banned or of such economic insignificance to industry as to be irrelevant.
Currently, 162 nations participate in the POPs Treaty. At a meeting last month in Geneva aimed at phasing out some of the planet’s more dangerous chemicals, attendees were greeted by indigenous peoples from the Arctic drumming and singing traditional songs as a reminder that aboriginal peoples, as well as polar bears, are a threatened species.
Stephanie Hendricks, a member of ACAT, notes that some indigenous peoples’ traditional food sources (whales, seals, fish and caribou) are now so laden with POPs, and other foods are so inaccessible or expensive (milk is $14 to $16 a gallon), that the choice is ultimately between slow death by chemicals or an equally slow death from hunger.
Miller expands on this problem by observing:
“There’s some evidence in the new Arctic monitoring assessment program that chemicals like endosulfan are going to increase in concentration in the marine environment as a result of declining sea ice, which offers more surface for the transfer from the atmosphere to the oceans. This is of particular concern because we know that Canadian and Arctic circumpolar indigenous people rely to a large extent on marine mammals for their diet.”
They also reiterated concerns about DDT, which will continue to be used by some poorer countries to defend against malaria and other diseases. U.S. representatives even came to the meeting ready to support a ban on lindane, a highly toxic pesticide that affects the central nervous system – a sudden and surprising switch in policy. However, the chemical still received a pharmaceutical use exemption at India’s request.
The preamble of the Stockholm Convention acknowledges the unique vulnerability of Arctic indigenous peoples, yet the U.S. continues to refuse to ratify the treaty with the Precautionary Principle intact, and chemical industry lobbying has so influenced Congressional voting over the years that no accord has ever been achieved. Now, several powerful industry lobbies are also working to prevent action to slow global warming, which is exacerbating the problem
Miller and other advocates realize they have a long road ahead:
“There is extreme influence by the chemical lobby. But if these chemicals are showing up in remote ecosystems like the Arctic, that is, to my way of thinking, an injustice to the people of the Circumpolar Arctic, and it has to be stopped.”
Photo: Ansgar Walk