Monitoring shows contaminants still pollute the Arctic
“These chemicals are known to be harmful for humans and wildlife”
Monitoring in the Arctic for toxic substances produced in farms and factories located far to the south continues this year, with scientists like Anya Gawor on the look-out for traces of these contaminants in the Arctic air and waters, and even in tiny sea creatures.
Gawor, 24, a graduate student at the Univ. of Toronto, spent this month on board the Canadian Coast Guard’s research icebreaker, the Amundsen, as it travelled from Kugluktuk to Quebec City.
It’s the second year that Gowar has travelled on the Amundsen to monitor the presence of harmful chemicals in the Arctic.
Once in the Arctic, these chemicals are known to work their way up the food chain, where they can cause damage to the health of fish, animals and people.
“These chemicals are known to be harmful for humans and wildlife, and are prevalent in the environment even in remote areas,” Gawor said.
But Gawor worries people in the Arctic may not know about the efforts she and others put into contaminant monitoring, because they don’t see her at work or the contaminants she hunts for.
“What happens to the contaminants when they reach the Arctic has an impact on people,” Gawor said in a satellite telephone call from on board the icebreaker. “That’s because contaminants can build up in an organism as they go up the food chain.”
Those contaminants can end up in high concentrations in marine mammals like polar bears, and even in people.
Much of Gawor’s work focuses on trying to figure out whether the contaminants are entering the Arctic through the water or air.
To sample the air, Gawor and her colleague Martina Koblizkova set up cylinders on the front deck of the Amundsen.
Every day they empty the cylinders, stuffed with foam to catch pollutants in the air, and put the foam into a refrigerator for analysis back in Toronto.
They also sample ocean water from tubes sent down into the ocean at specific points as the Amundsen travels.
Gawor and Koblizkova also use nets take samples of tiny shrimp-like organisms, called zooplankton, one of the favourite foods of whales and fish — to test these for contaminants.
“They are lower on the food chain, so it will help us understand how contaminants ‘move’ in the environment between air, water and those simple organisms, which make up the ‘base’ of the food chain in the Arctic,” Gawor said.
The two young researchers are also looking for traces of contaminants, which have already been banned, like the toxic pesticide DDT,
Since the international Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, first banned the use of worldwide use of DDT and 11 other of worst pollutants in 2004, there are fewer traces of these 12 — called the “dirty dozen”— in the Arctic.
But since 2004, other pollutants have been found to be equally toxic.
And Gawor is also looking for traces of more recently-developed substances which may also be banned.
“Their presence in the Arctic is one sign that they undergo long-range transport, so they’re not good chemicals to use,” she said.
Suspect contaminants include a group of chemicals, called perfluorinated compounds or PFCs, that are widely used in all types of industries, including automotive, tele-communications, fire-fighting foam and packaging.
PFCs are added into products to make them stain, soil, water and grease resistant.
“Why if you spill grape juice on carpet can you pretty much clean it up? Because the carpet was treated with a product which contained some form of perfluorinated compounds,” Gawor said.
You can also find these chemicals in inner linings of microwavable popcorn bags, outerwear and non-stick cookware.
In animal studies, they’ve been linked to bladder cancer and liver cancer, as well as developmental and reproductive problems.
In humans, researchers have found they’re able to cross the placenta from mother to fetus, and a study looking at fetal exposure found that increased levels of PFCs are associated with reduced growth in newborns. Scientists have also identified a potential link between PFCs and infertility,
“How these chemicals find themselves in the Arctic regions is still not well-understood,” Gawor said. “Our work is to determine whether these chemicals are more likely to reach the Arctic through air or through water currents.”
Last year, Gawor looked for traces of a pesticide called Endosulfan, a leading chemical used for more than 50 years against insects and mites in cashew, coffee and tea plantations, now found in the Arctic.
Considered to be acutely toxic and extremely hazardous, endosulfan affects reproductive systems and is suspected to cause cancer in humans and wildlife.
Endosulfan has also been a major source of poisoning and deaths in Cuba, Benin and India, where people unknowingly came into contact with the pesticide.
Because of its threats to human health and the environment, a global ban on the manufacture and use of endosulfan was negotiated under the Stockholm Convention last April.
Gawor is still looking for Endosulfan this year in her laboratory tests.
“We are interested in seeing how quickly Arctic will respond to the banning of this insecticide,” Gawor said.
Other agricultural pesticides that have been banned or restricted have declined in the Arctic over time.
This suggests that the regulations on banning or restricting these chemicals are successful, Gawor said.