Arctic Collecting World's Toxic Burden

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 18, 2005 (ENS) - The Arctic is becoming the world's chemical dump, conservationists said Thursday.

A new study by WWF documents how poisonous chemicals used across the world in pesticides, furniture, carpets, paints, plastic toys, food wrappers and computers are increasingly contaminating the Arctic and its wildlife, with some found in concentrations higher than in the countries where they were produced.

The conservation group says the situation is "a catastrophe for the Arctic" and should sound a warning for the entire planet to rein in its use of harmful chemicals.

"Not only is chemical contamination increasing in the Arctic, but also modern chemicals are now appearing in many Arctic species alongside older chemicals, some of them banned for over 20 years," said Brettania Walker, toxics officer at WWF's Arctic Program. "This alarming trend will continue if the current chemical regulation does not improve." arctic

The pristine image of the Arctic is misleading. (Photo courtesy Arctic Council)
Manufactured pollution has a long history of turning up in the Arctic due to prevailing winds and ocean currents, drifting sea ice and migrating wildlife, all of which carry industrial and agricultural chemicals to the region over long distances.

Many of these pollutants are slow to break down in the environment and can become entrapped in the polar ice and gradually released into the environment during melting periods - often years after the chemicals first accumulated, and in some cases, years after they are banned.

Arctic wildlife, such as polar bears, seals and whales, are at great risk from bioaccumulative chemicals such as PCBs because their thick layers of fat act as a magnet for storing chemicals, leading to the build up of very high chemical levels.

Recent studies on the health of polar bears indicate some already have levels of PCBs and pesticides that are likely harming their health and adversely affecting their development.

Many of the newer chemicals now reaching the Arctic are capable of similar effects, and mixtures of both older chemicals and those in current use could lead to even more harmful combined effects, WWF said.

The report notes that polar bears are also contaminated with brominated flame-retardants and fluorinated chemicals.

These bioaccumulative chemicals have also been found in whales, Arctic foxes, seals, porpoises, and birds from Greenland, Norway, Canada and Sweden.

In addition, chlorinated paraffins - chemicals used in paints, sealants, adhesives, leather, and rubber processing - have been detected in grey and ringed seals from Norway, beluga whales, walruses as well as fish, birds, and ocean sediments from the United Kingdom. bears

Researchers are finding more evidence of chemical contamination of the world's largest terrestrial predator. Here Norwegian Polar Institute scientists conduct blood and fat tests on a female polar bear. (Photo by Tanya Petersen courtesy WWF-Canon )
WWF hopes the findings about the contamination of the Arctic will help energize the move for a ban on toxic chemicals still on the market today, many of which have not been fully tested to determine their impacts on human and wildlife health.

"Arctic contamination has serious implications not just for the health of arctic animals but also for arctic indigenous peoples who rely on a traditional marine diet," said Walker. "Strong chemical regulation is needed to prevent hazardous chemicals from reaching the Arctic in the first place."

The report comes amid a flurry of concern about the future of the Arctic and its wildlife - in particular the polar bear.

The Arctic is considered the front line for climate change and appears to already be suffering the effects of global warming.

It is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet and summer sea ice is melting at a rate of 9.6 percent per decade - putting it on pace to disappear entirely by the end of the century.

That would spell the end for the polar bear, which depends on the ice to hunt seals. polarbears

Chemical contamination and global warming paint a worrying future for the polar bear. (Photo courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service)
Some 22,000 polar bears are believed to remain in the wild, spread across five Arctic nations - the United States, Canada, Norway, Greenland and Russia.

Concern about the fate of the polar bear has prompted environmentalists to formally ask the U.S. federal government to protect the species under the Endangered Species Act.

According to Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity, a U.S. environmental group, the petition is not just a bid to help the species - it is also an attempt to pressure the Bush administration to alter its global warming policy and cut the nation's greenhouse gas emissions.

Habitat loss is the primary cause of species extinction worldwide, said Siegel, and the polar bearís sea-ice habitat is literally melting away.

"The United States must quickly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to a small fraction of current levels or polar bears will become extinct," said Siegel, lead author of the petition. "We must act now."