25. TOXIC PCB CONTAMINATION ABOVE THE ARCTIC CIRCLE
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
CENSORED RESEARCHER: ANN STEFFORA
SOURCE: LOS ANGELES TIMES, 890 Yonge St., Suite 400, Toronto, Ontario,
Canada M4W 3P4
Reprinted in: THIS WORLD, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
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
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
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."