Toxic Contamination in The Arctic

BlueVoice recently traveled to Iqaluit in the Canadian Arctic to gather information for an upcoming documentary on ocean contamination and its effects on marine mammals and humans. There, we met Shiela Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Sheila, a long-time spokesperson for the Inuit, has worked tirelessly to alert the world to the problems of toxic contamination in the Arctic and to bring to the public an understanding that the problems in the Arctic are global problems as well.

“The Inuit of the world become the net recipients of the by-products of industry and the pesticides that are used”, Sheila explained. “We get all the negative impacts of this. Contaminants remain here in the Arctic in high concentrations at the bottom of the Arctic sink where our marine mammals live and eat.”

“Tests showed that there were 8 – 10 times higher of these Persistent Organic Pollutants showing up in the fatty tissues of the marine mammals of the Arctic and then because we are marine mammal eaters of seal, whale and walrus, it was showing up 8 – 10 times higher in the body burdens of Inuit and in particular in the nursing milk of our mothers.”

Of all cultures, the Inuit people of the Arctic have been most strongly affected by ocean contamination. They are faced with the dilemma of giving up their traditional ways of eating or consuming animals that contain high concentrations of toxic chemicals. Hunting and fishing provide the Inuit with a sustainable and independent way of life and are important elements of their 4,000-year-old culture.

The animals of the Arctic now have extremely high concentrations of toxins in their body fat. Beluga Whales, ringed seals, narwhal and polar bears are carrying a huge toxic burden and experiencing the terrible effects of these chemicals.

In the mid-1980’s scientists began to find elevated levels of toxic chemicals known as POPs (persistent organic pollutants) in the blood and fat tissues of the Inuit and other people of the Arctic. Scientists say the toxins can cause cancer, damage reproductive and neurological organs, injure immune systems and cause learning disabilities.

POPs are a set of extremely toxic, long-lasting, organic chemicals that can travel long distances and accumulate in people, animals and ecosystems.

They include pesticides, insecticides, industrial chemicals such as PCBs and waste combustion such as dioxin and furan. These chemicals originate sometimes thousands of miles away. They are carried to the Arctic on wind and water currents where they bio-accumulate and bio-magnify in the Arctic food chain. Polar ice can trap contaminants that are gradually released into the environment during melting periods, even years later.

The Inuit diet of ‘country food’ which includes marine mammals such as beluga whale, narwhal and seal, puts them at the top of a contaminated food chain. The toxins collect in the animals’ fat and are passed on to the Inuit as they eat, or through breast milk. Depending on the amount and type of country food consumed, many Inuit have levels of POPs in their bodies well in excess of the "level of concern" defined by Health Canada.

The bodies of Arctic people, particularly Greenland's Inuit, contain the highest human concentrations of POPs found anywhere on Earth — levels so extreme that the breast milk and tissues of some Greenlanders could be classified as hazardous waste.

Many POPs are endocrine disruptors that cause reproductive, neurological, and immune system dysfunctions. Studies of Inuit children have shown subtle cognitive and neurological effects on five-year-olds as a result of prenatal exposure to PCBs and mercury. Research published in the United States points to learning “deficits” and subtle behavioral effects in children born to mothers with high levels of POPs in their bodies. Most of these pollutants can pass through the placenta to impact unborn children in the womb. Women in these American studies had consumed, over a long period, large quantities of Lake Michigan fish contaminated with POPs. The levels of POPs in the mothers and their children studied in the United States are generally below levels recorded in many Inuit in northern Canada and Greenland, raising concerns about the long-term health effects of POPs on the Inuit people.

Inuit women have been found to have levels of PCBs in their breast milk 5X to 10X higher than women in southern Canada.

Mercury is increasing in the Arctic ecosystem and around the world. Mercury is a contaminant that hits developing children the hardest. Mercury, which generally comes from a high fish diet, can travel across the placenta from the mother to the fetus, meaning exposure to the dangerous poison often begins in the womb during a baby’s most vulnerable developmental period. Not only can children and fetuses be harmed by lower concentrations of mercury than adults, but because they are in a more active development stage, they are especially vulnerable to mercury's toxic effects.

And now new chemicals are arriving in the Arctic to add to this toxic cocktail. PBDEs (flame retardants) are used in clothing, computers and furniture. Research has linked some chemicals in the flame retardants to effects on brain function, reduced male fertility and damaged ovarian development. Some of the chemicals have already been banned in Europe. In August, California enacted the United State’s first ban on two forms of the fire retardants chemicals known to accumulate in the blood of mothers and nursing babies.