Mercury, other toxins threaten peoples, wildlife of the Arctic
Wednesday, October 02, 2002
By Matti Huuhtanen, Associated Press
HELSINKI, Finland ÷ Mercury and other toxins in the food chain are threatening humans and wildlife in the Northern Hemisphere, leading to high blood pressure in newborn babies and causing polar bears to lose cubs at birth, scientists said Tuesday.
"We were really surprised by the mercury problem. The amount of mercury transported into the area seems to be much higher than anyone believed before," said Lars-Otto Reiersen, one of the compilers of a report on Arctic pollution.
Released at a conference of environmental experts in Rovaniemi, 830 kilometers (520 miles) north of the capital Helsinki, the Arctic Pollution 2002 report says human-made toxins follow air and water currents from as far away as Asia to the remote and fragile Arctic environments of North America, Greenland, and the Svalbard islands north of Norway.
Although still one of the cleanest regions in the world, indigenous peoples ÷ especially the Inuit in Greenland and Canada ÷ are particularly vulnerable because they depend on whale blubber and seal meat containing high concentrations of toxins.
"The energy is in the fat, the vitamins are in the fat, and now, unfortunately, we see the pollutants are in the same place," said Reiersen, who heads the Norway-based Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP).
The effects of the toxins are felt further south too, including in the Faeroe Islands, an archipelago midway between Iceland and Scotland several hundred kilometers (miles) south of the Arctic Circle, the AMAP report said.
"Newborn babies in the Faeroe Islands have increased blood pressure, and it stays high for six years," Reiersen said. "It's the only place we have studied this, but it's bound to occur in other more northern areas where concentrations of pollutants are equally high or even greater."
Reiersen said that while mercury emissions ÷ from burning coal in power plants and garbage incinerators ÷ have fallen in Europe and North America, they are increasing in China and elsewhere in Asia.
Reiersen said polar bears are giving birth to fewer cubs, and many more are dying at birth because of the toxins. Arctic fox, seals, killer whales, harbor porpoises, and birds also suffer high levels of contamination by organic pollutants that damage the nervous system, development, and reproduction, the AMAP report said.
But it's not all bad news. Emissions of some heavy metals such as zinc are down, and lead has been substantially reduced because of a switch from leaded to lead-free gasoline, the report said.
Lapland, which stretches across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, provides a livelihood ÷ mainly fishing, reindeer husbandry, and tourism ÷ for 40,000 indigenous Sami, or Lapps.
"The fish, reindeer, and plants of Lapland are safe to eat. Numerous tests have proven this," said Outi Mahonen, a Finnish member of AMAP.
In a separate study, female polar bears with both male and female sexual organs were discovered in 1997 on Norway's Svalbard Archipelago, some 500 kilometers (300 miles) north of the mainland. Researchers believe the deformity could be due to PCBs and other toxins. Potentially cancer-causing PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are chemical compounds once widely used in plastics and electrical insulation that can take decades to break down. They have been widely banned in the West.
But new pollutants are taking their place. "Now we are seeing evidence of a new generation of pollutants in the Arctic: brominated products or flame retardants" used in radios, televisions, and textiles to reduce the risk of fire, Reiersen said. "We are near to achieving a ban on them in Europe, but once again, they are being increasingly used in Asia from where they will travel here," he added.
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