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From: Pete Roche, INTERNET:Pete.Roche@uk.greenpeace.org
To: Patricia Dines, 73652,1202
Date: Thu, Jan 2, 1997, 8:04 AM
Subject: Industry Poisons Arctic.
An interesting article from a UK Sunday paper just before Xmas.
"World Industry poisons Arctic purity" Independent on Sunday 15th
A Climatic Trick Dumps Chemicals from afar on people and animals in
the far north, writes Geoffrey Lean.
Their language may have 30 different words for "snow" but it doesn't
have one for "contamination". So it is hard to explain to the Inuit
people of the remote and pristine Broughton Island in the Canadian
Arctic that - thanks to a strange and newly discovered trick of
natural systems - they are more polluted by some of the world's most
toxic chemicals than any other people on earth.
And yet research shows that the bodies of the 450 people of the small
island, thousands of miles awy from the source of the pollution have
the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) ever found,
except in victims of industrial accidents. The chemicals are
increasingly suspected of causing cancer, suppressing fertility and
damaging the immune system.
Neighbouring peoples, on the vast Baffin Island next door, shun them
as "PCB people" and try to dissuade their children from marrying them.
But the neighbours are highly contaminated too: Inuit from Greenland
on one side of Baffin and Broughton Islands to Arctic Quebec on the
other, have seven times as much of the chemicals in their bodies as
people living in temperate and industrialised parts of Canada.
PCBs were long ago banned in most industrial countries after being
used in a host of applications from paints to pesticides, plastics to
electrical equipment - but they are still concentrating in the Artic.
Curiously, they are doing so as the direct result of their continued
use in developing countries in the tropics.
It is a similar story for a host of similarly dangerous chemicals.
Measurements quoted by the authoritative technical magazine,
Environmental Data Services, show that Greenlanders have more than 70
times as much of the pesticide hexachlorobenzene (HCB) in their bodies
than temperate Canadians. Another pesticide HCH is over 100 times more
concentrated in the waters of the Arctic Beaufort Sea than in the Java
Sea, near where it is mainly used.
Polar Bears, seals, fish and birds of prey are also heavily polluted,
and Arctic ecosystems are under threat. DR Frank Wania of the
Norweigan Institute of Air Research at Tromso, 200 miles north of the
Arctic Circle, says: "The circumpolar nations should be very
concerned". Dr Wania who first stumbled across the growing crisis at
the beginning of the decade when studying for his doctorate - and
other scientists believe that the cause is "global distillation",
which picks up pollutants from where they are released and dumps them,
many thousands of miles away, on some of the most fragile ecosystem
and vulnerable peoples in the world. The alarming planetary phenomenon
is turning the roof of the earth into its ultimate chemical dump.
In the process, the world seems to act as a giant distillery, Volatile
chemicals - such as PCBs, HCBs, dioxins and other pesticides such as
toxaphene and DDT - boil off into the air when they are used in the
tropics. The chemicals are then carried by the winds until they hit
cooler climates, where they condense and fall to earth.
As in the fractionated distillation equipment used in school science
classes, different groups of chemicals condense at different
temperatures. DDT for example is less volatile than many others and,
seems to be deposited mainly in temperate regions. So is toxaphene:
high levels of the pesticide are found in North Sea fish, even though
it has rarely been used in Europe.
HCB, HCH and some forms of PCBs - which are much more volatile - seem
to carry on all the way up to the Arctic: concentrations in seals, for
example, increase the further north you go. An estimated 99.9% of the
HCH used on rice paddies in South India boil off into the atmosphere
to condense out elsewhere. And research shows that concentrations of
HCBs are negligible in the tropics, where they are mainly used, except
in the high African mountains, where the temperature drops enough for
condensation to occur.
Dr Wania SAYS that the chemicals can take between a few weeks and
decades to find their way north. At one extreme a favourable wind can
carry them straight up from the tropics in just a fortnight. At the
other, they may move northwards in a series of small jumps that he
calls "the grasshopper effect" repeatedly condensing out and then
evaporating again for the next jump, as temperatures change with the
season. "Even pesticides sprayed in the 1950s may still be on their
way" he says.
However long the journey, the Arctic is the end of the line. Less is
known about what is happening in the Antarctic, because far fewer
measurements have been done, but Dr Wania thinks there is less global
distillation there. The chamicals are mostly used in the northern
hemisphere, he says, and winds and the pollution they carry tend not
to cross the equator. There also seems to be less movement of air
towards the Pole in the southern hemisphere.
The chemicals concentrate in the Arctic because it is a relatively
small area, attracting pollution from the whole hemisphere. Other
special features also increase the danger - the cold slows down the
natural decomposition of the chemicals, and Arctic wildlife relies on
thick layers of blubber and fat, in which pollution builds up. The
Inuit are at the top of the food chain eating a lot of local fish and
wildlife. So although they have contributed virtually nothing to the
pollution, and do not benefit at all from the use of the chamicals
thousands of miles to the south, they are becoming its principal
Dr Wania believes that the use of these chemicals will have to be
banned worldwide, because of what is happening in the Arctic. The
United Nations Environment Programme is beginning work on a draft
international treaty which could achieve this, but the pollution of
many years is already in the planet's atmosphere, working its way
towards the poles.