The Arctic paradox

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The traditional diet of Inuits has health benefits but exposes them to dangerous levels of pollutants.

Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic

Grove Press: 2005. 256pp. $24 080211797X | ISBN: 0-802-11797-X
Credit: BRYAN & CHERRY ALEXANDER PHOTOGRAPHY

In 1962, Rachel Carson published her famous book Silent Spring about man-made chemicals found in the tissues of wildlife and humans. In so doing she started a debate in the United States and Europe about the production of chemical pollutants. Partly in response, the environmental movement grew and the public demanded that government and industry be held accountable for their actions.

Several decades later, Dianne Dumanoski, Theo Colborn and John Peterson Myers published Our Stolen Future (E. P. Dutton, 1996), which demonstrated the effects of man-made chemicals on wildlife. The book launched some major research initiatives to investigate the effects of chemicals (such as endocrine disruptors) on humans. Now, nearly ten years later, Marla Cone presents Silent Snow, a comprehensive book about pollutants found in the Arctic ecosystem and their effects on both wildlife and people.

The Arctic is generally considered to be pristine, as there are few local sources of pollution. However, during the past 10–15 years there has been increasing evidence (mainly from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme) that the Arctic environment is threatened by pollution and climate change. Cone, an environmental reporter at the Los Angeles Times, describes the ‘Arctic paradox’, in which people living in the Arctic are the most contaminated, despite the fact that they live far away from the sources of these pollutants. She describes how the Inuit in Canada and Greenland face a significant health risk as a result of their dependence on traditional food — meat and blubber from seals and whales — that contains high concentrations of pesticides and industrial pollutants.

Because of long-range transport by air, water currents and river outflow, the Arctic is a sink for industrial and agricultural pollutants from the south. When these accumulate in Arctic marine food webs, they affect humans and wildlife. In some human populations living in the Arctic, levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and mercury are the highest anywhere on Earth and exceed health and safety guidelines. In children living in northern Canada, POPs have been documented to affect the immune system, as shown by higher than normal rates of infectious diseases. On the Faroe Islands, which were also visited by Cone, high mercury levels cause irreversible neurological damage to fetuses, leading to reduced learning ability later in life. As a result of these findings, children and women of reproductive age in some Arctic populations are being advised to reduce their intake of traditional foods.

Silent Snow is a journey into the science of toxicology and the ecological impact of pollutants on animals and people living in the Arctic. Cone has visited scientists in the field and in their labs and presents a fascinating but tragic story about the problems of Arctic pollution. She also talked to native people in Alaska, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, and illustrates the problems these people face if they continue their way of life and dependence on traditional food. They eat a marine diet, considered to be among the world's healthiest (based on the content of iron, proteins, vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids) — but the levels of pollutants are so high that it threatens their wellbeing. Unfortunately, switching to Western food increases the risk of other diseases not normally found in these populations, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. This poses a dilemma for public-health officials: they encourage the Inuit and others to eat traditional foods, but advise them to reduce their consumption of such foods.

I enjoyed reading Cone's book, especially her descriptions of conversations with indigenous people and scientists in different parts of the Arctic. This discussion would have been improved if she had also visited the indigenous families of the Russian Arctic. These families, which constitute almost half of all indigenous people in the Arctic, face serious health risks. The collapse of the Soviet economy left them dependent on traditional food, increasing their risk of chemical exposure.

Cone presents the science of Arctic toxicology and the Arctic paradox in an interesting and readable way. She also presents some solutions and predictions about the pollution problem. The Stockholm Convention, which will ban the use and production of a ‘dirty dozen’ chemicals, is an important step towards a reduction in the production and use of man-made chemicals. Although the concentrations of some chemicals (such as PCBs and DDT) are decreasing in the Arctic environment, others are becoming more common, especially mercury, brominated and fluorinated compounds. There is an urgent need for action, from both industry and government agencies. To this end the European Commission has made a plan for the testing and regulation of chemicals. Unfortunately, it seems harder than ever to ban toxic substances in the United States.

Silent Snow is an important book that should be read by environmentalists, scientists, politicians and the public. The environmental problem of man-made chemicals, addressed in this and previous books, should send a clear message to the rest of the world.

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Gabrielsen, G. The Arctic paradox. Nature 436, 177–178 (2005) doi:10.1038/436177a

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