Seventy miles north of the Arctic Circle Is Broughton Island where some 450 Eskimos (they call themselves Inuit, or "the people") live much like their ancestors have for thousands of years, by hunting and fishing. The largest "industry" in town is a sewing circle.

Broughton Island is the last place on Earth one would associate with chemical hazards. But now the Inuit are paying the price of the comfortable, industrialized lives enjoyed by those who live far away in the south, even many thousands of miles distant.

In 1989, the villagers learned that they have higher levels of PCBs in their blood than any known population on Earth, excluding the victims of industrial accidents.

PCB's, polychlorinated biphenyls, are a family of more than 200 related organic compounds some of which are extremely toxic and have been linked with diseases of the blood, immune and nervous systems, with respiratory and skin problems, and with underweight and premature babies.

While the use of PCBs has been banned in North America since the late 1970s, the chemicals migrate to Broughton Island on the Earth's long-range air and water currents, some from as far off as Southeast Asia. The laborious process of discovering where the chemicals originate is only now beginning. Derek Muir, a research scientist at the Canadian government's Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, Manitoba, said there was quite a biomagnification going on. He explained that most Arctic marine mammals are thickly padded with fat for insulation and thus accumulate organochlorines in their bodies far more readily than the leaner animals living on land. By the time PCBs move from the waters of the Arctic Ocean into the tiny, one-celled animals at the bottom of the food chain, from there into the flesh of cod and other fish, then into seals, and finally on up to the polar bears that eat the seals, their concentration has increased about three billion times.

Kevin Lloyd, director of wildlife management for the Northwest Territories government in Yellowknife, warned "Now, we know this really is Spaceship earth, and there is no part of the world that is immune from activity in other parts."

Ironically, the language of the Inuit people, Inuktitut, has no word for "contamination." Now, it appears, they will need one.


SOURCE: LOS ANGELES TIMES, 890 Yonge St., Suite 400, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4W 3P4
DATE: 8/11/91
TITLE: "The Toxic Circle"
AUTHOR: Mary Williams Walsh

COMMENTS: Investigative journalist Mary Williams Walsh says that, as far as she knows, no journalists from other general-interest publications have both traveled to the Arctic to interview the people there and done extensive interviews with scientists in the south who are trying to trace the sources of the contaminants and assess their effects.

Walsh suggests that it is important for people to know about this Arctic pollution since the more the media highlight the ability of organic compounds to travel the world on air currents, the more the public is apt to demand that proper controls be placed on the manufacture and use of the chemicals in question -- and the greater the likelihood of meaningful international regulation. She points out that "Airborne chemical pollutants don't respect borders, of course, but all too often since 1981, American political leaders, leaning on claims of national sovereignty, have opposed international pollution controls. Among Western developed nations, Washington's solitary opposition to protocols on global warming, and its years of resistance to a bilateral accord with Canada on acid rain, come to mind."

Walsh also speculated on why this subject hadn't been covered more by the American media. "It is frightfully expensive to travel to the Arctic.

"Distances are long, there are no roads, a visiting reporter has to fly, and plane tickets are never discounted. In addition, this is grubby, uncomfortable research. I was in Broughton Island in June, and there was still about two feet of snow on the ground. I was six months pregnant at the time, and even so, the best accommodation I could scare up was a plywood bench in a quonset but with no electricity or running water.

"The sort of publications one might expect to find doing a story like this -- small, alternative magazines and newspapers -- are unlikely to have the wherewithal the reporting takes. And the major networks, which have entered an era of cost containment, are probably not disposed to send a crew into the Arctic for a story like this. Nor is television a medium that readily lends itself to explanations of complicated scientific subjects. I have to hand it to my editors in Los Angeles. They ran the piece I wrote at almost the length I wrote it, and were far more excited about it than I dreamed possible. It was a costly story to do, but they never second-guessed me on my budget -- or my emphases."