Pristine No More.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier is a forty-seven-year-old grandmother in an Inuit community in remote northern Quebec. She worries about the fate of the 140,000 Inuits in Canada's Arctic because they have unwittingly absorbed toxic chemicals from polluters thousands of miles to the south. These chemicals are accumulating at alarmingly high levels in the mother's milk of Inuit women.
"As we put our babies to our breasts, we are feeding them a noxious, toxic cocktail," said Watt-Cloutier recently. "When women have to think twice about breast-feeding their babies, surely that must be a wake-up call to the world."
The due bills for modern industry are being left on the Inuits' table in Nunavut, the Canadian Arctic. Inuits on Broughton Island have the highest levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) ever found, except among victims of industrial accidents.
Because of their diet of contaminated sea animals and fish, Inuit women have six times the level of PCBs in their breast milk as women in urban Quebec, reports the Quebec Health Center.
PCBs and other toxins accumulate across generations in mammals, including the Inuit and many of their food sources. Airborne toxic substances are absorbed by plankton and small fish, which are then eaten by dolphins, whales, and other large animals. The mammals' thick, subcutaneous fat stores the hazardous sub stances, which then are transmitted to offspring through breast-feeding. According to the Quebec Health Center, a concentration of 1,052 parts per billion of PCBs has been found in Arctic women's breast fat. This compares to a reading of 7,002 in polar bear fat, 1,002 in whale blubber, 527 in seal blubber, and 152 in fish. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safety standard for edible poultry, by contrast, is three parts per billion, and in fish two parts per billion. At fifty parts per billion, soil is often considered to be hazardous waste.
Inuit infants are providing a living test case for immunologists. Because of their rapid growth and development, fetuses, infants, and children may be more sensitive to dioxin exposure than other groups. Born with depleted white blood cells, the children suffer excessive bouts of diseases, including a twenty-fold increase in life-threatening meningitis compared to other Canadian children, the Quebec Health Center found. The children's immune systems are so impaired that they sometimes fail to produce enough antibodies to react to the usual childhood vaccines.
Inuit babies have also experienced strikingly high rates of bronchitis, pneumonia, and other infections compared to other Canadians. One Inuit child out of every four has chronic hearing loss due to infections. A study published September 12, 1996, in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed that children exposed to low levels of PCBs in the womb grow up with low IQs, poor reading comprehension, difficulty paying attention, and memory problems.
The dangers threatening the Arctic ought to be a warning that nothing is "natural" anymore, said Watt-Cloutier. The Arctic region that seems "so pure and pristine is already laced with deadly and invisible pollutants," she said.
To a tourist with no interest in environmental toxicology, Watt-Cloutier's Arctic homeland may seem as pristine as it ever has been. During its long, snow-swept winters, many Inuit still guide dogsleds onto the ice to hunt polar bears and seals. But the polar bears' and seals' body fats are laced with dioxin and PCBs that have been released by industries at the lower latitudes. The compounds are swept into the Arctic by ocean currents and prevailing winds, diffusing quickly and easily. Pesticide residues in the Arctic today may include some used decades ago in the southern United States. Cold slows the natural decomposition of these toxins, so they persist in the Arctic environment longer than at lower latitudes.
Dioxin is the name for a family of chlorinated hydrocarbons that are a toxic byproduct of some metal-refining methods, pesticide manufacturing, and the chlorinated bleaching of pulp and paper. Human exposure to dioxin is almost entirely through consumption of animal fats. In temperate climates, dioxin enters the food chain through animal food crops and appears in milk and beef. In the Arctic, dioxin enters the food chain through lichen, mosses, and shrubs eaten by caribou, and through algae eaten by fish on which seals and walruses feed.
PCBs are a family of more than 200 related organic compounds that many industries have used, especially for electrical insulation. Nearly every animal and plant on Earth now contains trace levels of these toxins.
Persistent organic pollutants have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and neurological and immune-system damage in people and animals. Many of them also act as endocrine disrupters, causing deformities in sex organs as well as long-term dysfunction of reproductive systems. These pollutants also can interfere with the function of the brain and endocrine system by penetrating the placental barrier and scrambling the instructions of the naturally produced chemical messengers. When such interference occurs, immune, nervous, and reproductive systems may not develop as they are supposed to.
Because they are not easily broken down or excreted, the compounds can remain in the body for months or years. In ecosystems, they tend to concentrate or "bioaccumulate" in animals at the top of the food chain--marine mammals, bears, raptors, and human beings.
The use of PCBs has been banned in North America since the late 1970s, a ban that has not been strictly enforced. PCBs are still used in the Third World, and even in areas where they are no longer being manufactured (such as Canada), PCBs are still being released into the atmosphere, sometimes in unexpected ways. The big ice storm that hit Eastern Canada and parts of Upstate New York during 1997, knocking down transformers and power lines, had a little-known side effect: It spilled PCBs into the environment. The ice damaged electrical equipment, causing PCB-laden insulation to break up and the PCBs to go airborne.
Rapid economic growth, especially in Asia, has increased the discharge of various persistent organic pollutants. More people are living more affluently, stoking the industrial engines that produce dioxin and other pollutants. Industrialized agriculture, which utilizes many organic chemicals in fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, is adding to the problem. More than 90 percent of the chemicals sprayed on farmland evaporate in a short period of time and begin drifting through the atmosphere.
The concentration of chemical toxins in the Canadian Arctic is intensified by ocean circulation, notably the slow movement of water from the Atlantic Ocean through the Canadian archipelago to the High Arctic. The upwelling of this "older" water in the Arctic Ocean and Beaufort Sea may help explain why industrial or agricultural chemicals used decades ago are only now being detected in regions of the High Arctic.
Watt-Cloutier, President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, is doing her best to alert the world to the poisoning of her people.
On October 4 at Queen's College in New York City, Watt-Cloutier participated by phone in a press conference with ecologist Barry Commoner that disclosed the lower-latitude sources of dioxins that are afflicting the Inuit. (One of the principal sources has been a cement plant in Ash Grove, Nebraska, near my home in Omaha.)
Using an air-transport model developed by the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, a research team headed by Commoner compiled a list of 44,091 specific dioxin sources, of which 16,729 were in Canada, 22,439 in the United States, and 4,923 in Mexico. Nine of the top ten contributors of dioxin deposited in Nunavut were from the United States, including three municipal waste plants in Minnesota, Iowa, and Pennsylvania; three cement kilns in Michigan, Missouri, and Nebraska; two iron plants in Indiana; and a copper smelter in Illinois. Some have since reduced or eliminated their dioxin emissions.
The biggest dioxin sources in North America are municipal waste incinerators (25 percent), backyard trash burning (22 percent), cement kilns burning hazardous waste (18 percent), medical waste incinerators (11 percent), secondary copper smelters (8 percent), and iron sintering plants (7 percent). Together, these six categories contributed more than 90 percent of total North American emissions during the middle 1990s, according to the study, "Long-range Air Transport of Dioxin from North American Sources to Ecologically Vulnerable Receptors in Nunavut, Arctic Canada." It was conducted for the Montreal-based North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation by Commoner's Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Queens College. This report is the first to use weather patterns, pollution data, and corporate emissions records to track dioxin through the atmosphere to the Arctic from specific sources. The text of the study is available on the Internet at http://www. cec.org.
"Here you have a people who have nothing to do with producing dioxins," said Commoner, but who are the most affected by them. "The only way to protect our food supply from dioxin is to remedy the situation at the source."
For Watt-Cloutier, the evidence of toxic pollution among the Nunavut is devastating.
"The last thing we need at this time is to worry about the very country food that nourishes us--spiritually and emotionally--poisoning us," she said. "This is not just about contaminants on our plate. This is a whole way of being, a whole cultural heritage that is at stake here for us."
Bruce E. Johansen is Robert T. Reilly Professor of Journalism and Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is, most recently, author of "The Global Warming Desk Reference" (Greenwood Press, 2001).