Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)


The production and release of vast quantities of novel synthetic chemicals over the past 75 years has proved to be a great global experiment—one that now involves all life. Even before the Chemical Revolution moved into high gear at the end of World War II, the first warning sign appeared that some man-made chemicals might spell serious trouble. In 1944, scientists found residues of a man-made pesticide, DDT, in human fat. Seven years later, another study brought disturbing news of DDT contamination in the milk of nursing mothers. In the early 1950s, naturalists saw thinning eggshells and crashing populations of bald eagles and other birds. By 1962, Rachel Carson documented the growing burden of contamination in Silent Spring, which detailed the devastating impact of persistent pesticides on wildlife and warned about hazards to human health.

Ironically, chemicals that were developed to control disease, increase food production, and improve our standard of living are, in fact, a threat to biodiversity and human health. Because the risk from these originally well-intentioned chemicals outweighs their benefits, their continued use is no longer warranted.

Today, the contamination from persistent man-made chemicals is a pervasive global problem that urgently demands a global solution. Responding to the gravity of this threat, the international community has begun important steps toward stopping this unintended experiment. In June 1998, nearly a hundred nations embarked on negotiations with the goal of concluding a binding, global treaty on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) before the end of 2000. The outcome is critical since this process will determine the scope and pace of global action against persistent chemicals.

Trash burning releases cancer-causing dioxins into the atmosphere, along with arsenic, mercury, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide. The U.S. EPA estimates that 20 million burn barrels across the U.S. produce some 13 million pounds of pollutants every year, making backyard burning the No. 1 quantified source of dioxin emissions in the country.

See: The New York Times, Lisa W. Foderaro, 07 March 2005 and Duluth News Tribune, 04 March 2005

Contaminants in Alaska, Is America’s Arctic at Risk?
September 2000

by: Marilyn Heiman, Michele Brown, John Middaugh, Jim Berner, Patricia Cochran, Michelle Davis, Suzanne Marcy, Carl Hild, Philip Johnson, Janet Hohn, Pamela Miller, Bronwen Wang, Bruce Wright, and Michael Bradley.

U.S. Department of the Interior – State of Alaska, Department of Environmental Conservation & Department of Health & Social Services – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – University of Alaska Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies

Alaska Federation of Natives – Alaska Native Science Commission – Alaska Inter-Tribal Council – Native American Fish and Wildlife Society – Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium – Alaska Community Action on Toxics – North Slope Borough

Changes are occurring in America’s Arctic. Chemicals rarely used in the Arctic are appearing in Alaska’s air, water, fish, plants, and wildlife. These contaminants are of concern locally and globally. Locally, fish and wildlife are an essential part of the Alaskan Native diet and culture. Globally, this unanticipated concentration of pollutants may be sending an important message about how contaminants travel and accumulate far from the original source. The presence of environmental pollutants in the Arctic is particularly troubling because the Arctic ecosystem is fragile and slow to recover from impacts.
The contaminants of greatest concern are persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. These include DDT, PCBs, and dioxins. POPs have a broad range of negative effects. They are transported to the Arctic by large-scale air and water currents and some migratory species. Heavy metals, including mercury, cadmium, selenium, arsenic, and lead are also of great concern in the Arctic, and some are occurring at levels that can’t be explained by natural releases.

The levels of persistent organic pollutants found in the Alaskan Arctic are surprising because POPs were not manufactured in the Arctic. Although this paper focuses on the long-range transport of contaminants, some POPs were used at military installations during World War II and the Cold War, and these sites also concern local residents.

The use of some POPs has been banned for many years in the United States, Canada, and some European nations. However, these contaminants can travel long distances from areas in Russia, Asia, and other countries where they are still used.

POPs and heavy metals are showing up in Alaska’s wildlife. In the Aleutian Islands for example, bald eagles, sea otters, and Steller sea lions all have elevated levels of the pesticide DDT and some other contaminants. Concentrations of the pesticide hexachlorohexane (HCH) in male polar bears from Alaska are among the highest in the Arctic. Sea otters from Adak on the Aleutian Chain had concentrations of DDT 36 times higher than sea otters in Southeast Alaska. Some killer whales in the North Pacific are now considered among the most contaminated marine mammals on earth.

People also are exposed to these pollutants. Canadian studies have shown that the concentration of PCBs in the blood of adult Inuit is approximately seven times higher than in other North American adult populations that have been tested. Preliminary studies also show that Alaskan Natives in western and southwestern communities have also been exposed to PCBs and DDT.

The world’s Arctic is at risk from potentially harmful contaminants. In Alaska, they have been found in water, air, wildlife, and humans. There is good reason to suspect that harmful effects are likely in some instances, but conclusive evidence is lacking. An organized, systematic approach is needed to properly evaluate the real risks posed by these chemicals and to identify actions needed to reduce unacceptable risks.

AMAP, 2004. AMAP Assessment 2002: Persistent Organic Pollutants in the Arctic. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo, Norway. xvi+310 pp.
AMAP, 2003. AMAP Assessment 2002: The Influence of Global Change on Contaminant Pathways to, within, and from the Arctic. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo, Norway. xi+65 pp.
AMAP, 2003. J. Hansen, A. Gilman, V. Klopov and J.?. Odland (eds.). AMAP Assessment 2002: Human Health in the Arctic. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, Oslo, Norway. xii+137 pp.
Hansen, J.R., R. Hansson and S. Norris, 1996. The State of the European Arctic Environment. EEA Environmental Monograph No. 3, Oslo, Norway. 136 pp.
Heiman, M., B. A. Wright, et al. 2000. Contaminants in Alaska: Is America’s Arctic at Risk? A white paper published by the Department of the Interior and the State of Alaska.


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