The Arctic may seem a remote and pristine region, but winds and tides carry man-made toxins to the region, endangering wildlife there, the World Wildlife Fund said Wednesday.
And the fragile Arctic can serve as an early warning to the rest of world, said the group, launching an international campaign to control or ban man-made chemicals.
“Like the small portion of an iceberg that can be seen from above the water, chemicals that scientists now know to be contaminating the animals of the Arctic may be a warning of a larger problem that, for now, remains hidden,” the environmental group disclosed in a report released jointly in Oslo and Geneva.
The 18-page report, called “The tip of the iceberg: Chemical Contamination in the Arctic,” summed up existing research and through its DetoX campaign urged action.
“The time to act and move toward safer, sustainable chemical use is now,” said the report, urging adoption of such legislation as the European Union is considering: REACH, which stands for Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals.
The harm such toxins do to wildlife has already been document by scientists in Norway and elsewhere, and the WWF said safer replacements must be made and new laws passed to protect the fragile northern environment.
Researchers have long known that PCBs and other manmade toxins can cause hormonal imbalances in Arctic wildlife. For example, female bears with vestigial male sexual organs were found in 1997 on Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago and the surrounding Barents Sea region.
Only a tiny fraction of the estimated 30,000 to 70,000 chemicals made worldwide are banned, even though many more may be harmful, the report said. Europe is the largest producer, it said, accounting for about 35 percent.
And even those now largely banned, such as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, polychlorinated napthalenes, or PCNs, and DDT, can continue to cause harm because they take so long to break down.
The report said the Arctic region, including the land masses of northernmost Europe and North America, have become an inadvertent dumping ground for many of the chemicals because of climate conditions.
Air with contaminants reaches the cold Arctic, condensation forms and the toxins are carried to the ground in rain or snow, where the cold slows their decomposition.
“As a result, the Arctic acts as a final “sink” where pollutants from around the world accumulate and become trapped. The wildlife of the Arctic is especially vulnerable to chemical pollution,” the report said. Ocean currents also carry contaminants.
For example, decabromodiphenyl ethers, or deca-BDEs, are one of about 70 types of brominated flame retardants, and are commonly used in televisions, computers, stereos, and plastic toys.
They have been found in what sounds like an International Who’s Who list of wildlife, including: polar bears, arctic foxes, seals and beluga whales in Norwegian and Canadian areas as well as in white-beaked dolphins, minke and sperm whales, mackerel, harbour porpoises, blue mussels, salmon, endangered Vancouver Island marmots and glaucous gulls.
Man-made toxins are also believe to cause cancers, reduce vitamin levels, and can even cause the thinning of the shell’s of birds eggs.