Cold and Toxics: Lasting Relationship

02-01-1999 // NWF Staff

Canada´s Inuit and other native peoples of the Far North might seem as far away from pollution as they could get. But scientists have long known that the atmosphere carries toxics to the region from elsewhere in the world. Cold temperatures cause the substances to condense out and settle on the surface, where they enter the food chain. Now recent studies confirm that the Inuit are increasingly contaminated--and that their health is at risk.

People eat the substances in the meat and blubber of wildlife such as seals and whales. One recent study by the international Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program found that nearly half the women on Canada´s Baffin Island consume unhealthful levels of the pesticide chlordane. Almost a third of the women take in too much mercury, and 16 percent get too many PCBs. In the breast milk of Baffin Island´s women, scientists found levels of chlordane 10 times higher and levels of PCBs five times higher than in the milk of women in southern Canada.

Another study measured evidence of exposure to PCBs in different Inuit age groups. Canadian researchers discovered that as the Inuit age, they become markedly more contaminated, with 10 times more breakdown products of PCBs in their blood at the age of 66 than at the age of 18.

Other research indicates the Inuit experience also may be a wake-up call to mountain communities throughout the world. Scientists from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, reasoned that high altitudes, which are cold and receive high levels of precipitation, might also invite contamination. Sure enough, researchers found that snow from an altitude of more than 10,000 feet in mountains in western Canada has as much as 100 times more various persistant organic pollutants than snow at 2,500 feet. The researchers point out that snowmelt from high mountains elsewhere--including the American West--has the potential to carry toxics.


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