“I spent the first 10 years of my life travelling in dogsled, fishing for food,” says Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuk from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, in Northern Quebec, Canada.
In a matter of a few decades, that livelihood has dramatically changed. Environmental challenges such as the presence of persistent organic pollutants the fish and animals the Inuk eat, and melting snow and ice threaten the health and food security of the roughly four million who call the Arctic home.
“Knowing that the Arctic is the air conditioner of our planet, and that it is breaking down at an unprecedented speed, it seems to me that it would be the business of the world to keep us alive,” says Watt-Cloutier.
Persistent organic pollutants include pesticides, industrial chemicals and hazardous by-products of combustion. Specific health effects of these pollutants consist of cancer, allergies and hypersensitivity, damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, reproductive disorders, and disruption of the immune system.
“Persistent organic pollutants can be transported over large distances through air and water—this is clearly evidenced by what we see happening in the Arctic, a region which many people consider as a pristine wilderness,” says Jan Dusik, Principal Adviser for Strategic Engagement for the Arctic and Antarctic at UN Environment.
In addition, these pollutants can move across vast distances from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere by what is called the “grasshopper effect”. This means that they evaporate with warm air and return to earth with rain and snow in the colder areas of the globe.
Therefore, persistent organic pollutants released in one part of the world can, through a repeated (and often seasonal) process of evaporation and deposit, be transported through the atmosphere to regions far away from the original source. Over the course of several years, they approach the Arctic in a series of seasonal jumps.
As global warming increases, chemicals volatilize more readily into the atmosphere, increasing their presence in the air and other matrices.
Persistent organic pollutants are present in animals through a process of bioaccumulation and biomagnification, and levels are particularly high in animals at the top of the food chain, as predators eat the contaminated tissue of other species. Concern has therefore been raised about the potential health effects on human diets which rely on traditional marine food resources such as whale, seal, walrus and fish.
The link between chlorinated persistent organic pollutants and fatty acids in humans is well known. Adverse effects of persistent organic pollutants include disruption of the immune system, and cardiovascular diseases that are frequent in Greenland Inuit. The pollutants are also known to accumulate in breast milk.
Given the cultural importance and health benefits of these traditional foods to the diets of Indigenous Peoples like the Inuit, dealing with the issue of contamination requires a risk-benefit approach to balance the benefits with the risks of exposure. The Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme recommends this analysis be carried out at the local level in close consultation with affected communities.
Moreover, new harmful links between these pollutants and the lives of indigenous Arctic people are being unearthed.
“A slew of new compounds including stain repellents, flame retardants and pharmaceuticals are showing up in the Arctic. There are, so far, about 150 such compounds,” says Robert J. Letcher, one of the authors of a new study on pollutants in the Arctic.
The Stockholm Convention
The Stockholm Convention, which entered into force in 2004, sets out a range of control measures to reduce and, where feasible, eliminate persistent organic pollutants releases, including unintentional emissions. The Convention, which was negotiated under the auspices of UN Environment, also aims to ensure the sound management of stockpiles and waste consisting of or containing these pollutants.
The Stockholm Convention acknowledges that, “Arctic ecosystems and indigenous communities are particularly at risk because of the biomagnification of persistent organic pollutants and that contamination of their traditional foods is a public health issue”.
The Stockholm Convention, which now includes 182 countries as of November 2018, attempts to limit the spread of persistent organic pollutants, but they are still around.
“While much has been done to limit introduction of persistent organic pollutants into the environment globally, the fight to totally eliminate such pollutants, which disproportionately affect the health of people and fauna living in the Arctic, must go on,” says Jan Dusik.
People living in the Arctic also have to face a range of other challenges including climate change, which melts ice and snow and further affects the entire food chain. Plastic pollution, including by microplastics, is building up in the region. Carbon dioxide is also acidifying the Arctic Ocean.
Although people who live in the Arctic continue to feel the impact of persistent organic pollutants, because these persistent substances are still harming people as well as the environment, Sheila Watt-Cloutier sees the Stockholm Convention as a tremendous victory-and one to build upon.
“We [Inuit] are able to move mountains,” she says. “We should lead the world on the climate change battle.”
For further information please contact Jan Dusik.