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This original draft (dated October, 18, 2000) is reprinted with permission of the author. An edited version of this article appeared in the December 2000 issue of The Progressive.
Military Installations, Mines, and an Atmospheric "Assembly Line" of Chemical Toxins are Destroying the Inuits' Health, as well as the Lives of the Animals on Which They Depend.
As we put our babies to our breasts we are feeding them a noxious, toxic cocktail," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a 47-year-old grandmother who is president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. "When women have to think twice about breast-feeding their babies, surely that must be a wake-up call to the world."
Watt-Cloutier was raised in an Inuit community in remote northern Quebec. Unknown to her at the time, toxic chemicals were being absorbed by her body, and those of about 140,000 other Inuits in Canada's Arctic. Watt-Cloutier now ranges between her homeland, Montreal, and New York City, doing her best to alert the world to the poisoning of her people.
Today [October 4, 2000] at Queen's University, New York City, Watt-Cloutier is taking part in a press conference by telephone, announcing, with ecologist Barry Commoner, that the lower-latitude sources of Dioxins that are afflicting the Inuit can now be identified. She can, for example, tell me, in Omaha, that one of the principal sources has been a cement plant in nearby Ash Grove, Nebraska.
As Geoffrey Lean wrote in London's Independent:
Their language may have 30 different words for "snow", but it does not have one for "contamination". So it is hard to explain to the Inuit people of the remote and pristine Broughton Island, in the Canadian Arctic, that -- thanks to a strange and newly discovered trick of the world's natural systems -- they are more polluted by some of the world's most toxic chemicals than any other people on earth. (Lean)
The dangers threatening the Arctic ought to be a warning to the entire world that nothing is "pure" or "natural" anymore, said Watt-Cloutier. The Arctic region that seems "so pure and pristine is already laced with deadly and invisible pollutants." 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 pack ice surrounding their Arctic-island homelands to hunt polar bears and seals. Such a scene may seem pristine, until one comes to understand that the polar bears' and seals' body fats are laced with Dioxin and PCBs.
The toxicological due bills for modern industry at the lower latitudes are being left on the Inuits' table in Nunavut, the Canadian Arctic. Native people whose diets consist largely of sea animals (whales, polar bears, fish and seals) have been consuming a concentrated toxic chemical cocktail. Abnormally high levels of Dioxin and other industrial chemicals are being detected in Inuit mothers' breast milk. The bodies of Inuits on Broughton Island, thousands of miles from the sources of the pollution, have the highest levels of PCBs ever found, except in victims of industrial accidents. Some Native people in Greenland have more than 70 times as much of the pesticide hexaclorobenzene (HCB) in their bodies as temperate-zone Canadians.
Dioxin, PCPs, and other toxins accumulate across generations in breast-feeding mammals, including the Inuit and many of their food sources.
Inuit infants have provided "a living test tube for immunologists." (Cone) Due to their diet of contaminated sea animals and fish, Inuit women's breast milk contains six times more PCBs than women in urban Quebec, according to Quebec government studies. Their babies have experienced strikingly high rates of meningitis, bronchitis, pneumonia and other infections compared with other Canadians. One Inuit child out of every four has chronic hearing loss due to infections.
Born with depleted white-blood cells, the children suffer excessive bouts of diseases, including a 20-fold increase in life-threatening meningitis compared to other Canadian children. Their immune systems are so dysfunctional that they sometimes fail to produce enough antibodies even to react to the usual childhood vaccines.
The reproductive cycle of humans and other mammals compounds the toxic effects of these chemicals. Airborne toxic substances are absorbed by plankton and small fish, which are then eaten by dolphins and whales, and other large animals. The mammals' thick subcutaneous fat stores the hazardous substances, of which are transmitted to offspring through breast-feeding. Sea mammals are more vulnerable to this kind of toxicity than land animals, so the levels of chemicals in their bodies can reach exceptionally high levels. The level of these toxins increases with each breast-fed generation.
"In our studies, there was a marked increase in the incidence of infectious disease among breast-fed babies exposed to a high concentration of contaminants," said Eric Dewailly, a Quebec Public Health Center researcher who coordinated the work. (Cone)
According to the Quebec Health Center, a concentration of 1,052 parts per billion of PCBs has been found in Arctic women's milk fat. This compares to a reading of 7,002 in polar bear fat, 1,002 ppb in whale blubber, 527 ppb in seal blubber, and 152 ppb in fish. The United States Environmental Protection Agency safety standard for edible poultry, by contrast, is 3 ppb, and in fish, 2 ppb. At 50 ppb, soil is often considered to be hazardous waste.
Inuit babies have experienced strikingly high rates of meningitis, bronchitis, pneumonia and other infections compared with 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 Arctic has become a dumping ground for PCBs, Dioxin and agricultural chemicals. All are manufactured organic chlorine compounds 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 also slows the natural decomposition of these toxins, so they persist in the Arctic environment longer than at lower latitudes. At the same time that Inuits are being poisoned by several "persistent organic pollutants" ("POPs" to environmental toxicologists), they are discovering that parts of their homelands also are laced with toxic "hot spots" left behind by abandoned military installations and mines, all also imports from the industrial south.
Dioxin is produced by a number of chemical processes, including some metal-refining methods, the chlorinated bleaching of pulp and paper, and, most importantly, as a byproduct of the combustion of certain materials. 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.
One household's trash, burned in a backyard barrel, may release more Dioxins, furans, and other chlorine-containing pollutants tons of trash burned by a municipal waste incinerator serving tens of thousands of homes, according to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency's Open Burning Test Facility in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Roughly 20 million people in rural areas burn trash in their backyards, according to E.P.A. surveys. (Saar, 2000) The report appeared in the February 1, 2000 issue of Environmental Science & Technology.
Such backyard burning may contribute as much chemical toxicity to the air as all the United States' municipal waste incinerators combined, said Dwain Winters, director of the agency's Dioxin Policy Project. "With improved pollution controls on incinerators, backyard burning may turn out to be one of the largest sources of dioxins and furans to the air," Mr. Winters said. "We need a better understanding of barrel burning before we set policy on this source of air pollution." (Saar, 2000)
The amount of dioxins and furans produced by any given trash-burning site are influenced by temperature, burn time, trash density and the presence of chlorine. PVC plastics, salt in food wastes and bleached paper products, among other things, produce Dioxin and furans.
The agency estimates that wood burned in fireplaces and stoves produces very small amounts of dioxins and furans compared with trash burned in barrels.
Human exposure to Dioxin is almost entirely (95 percent) 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 -- polychlorinated biphenyls -- are a family of more than 200 related organic compounds. Nearly every animal and plant on Earth now contains trace levels of these toxins. Some are harmless, while others are extremely toxic and have been linked to diseases of the blood, immune and nervous systems, as well as with respiratory and skin problems, and with underweight and premature babies.
POPs have been linked to cancer, birth defects and other neurological, reproductive and immune-system damage in people and animals. At high levels, these chemicals also damage the central nervous system. Many of them also act as endocrine disruptors, causing deformities in sex organs as well as long-term dysfunction of reproductive systems. "POPs" 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. The latter tell a fetus how to develop in the womb and post-natally through puberty; should interference occur, immune, nervous, and reproductive systems may not develop as programmed by the genes inherited by the embryo.
Because they are not easily broken down or excreted, the compounds 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, in the bodies of large meat-eaters such as marine mammals, polar bears, raptors and human beings. Dolphins, seals and whales in the northern seas are being contaminated. Large land animals, such as caribou, also are affected.
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 third-world countries. 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 knocked down transformers and power lines had a little-known side effect: it spilled PCBs into the environment. Canada has banned production of the toxic chemicals but they remain in wide use as insulating agents. It is not known how much PCBs the ice storm released into the air.
Rapid economic growth, especially in Asia, has increased the discharge of various POPs into the air of the lower and middle latitudes. More people are living more affluently, stoking the industrial engines which produce Dioxin and other POPs. Rising populations also have been supported by increasing use of industrialized agriculture (including the "green revolution"), which utilizes many organic chemicals in fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. 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 also intensified by ocean circulation, notably the 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.
High concentrations of Dioxin in the Arctic have been traced to specific sources in the United States, Canada and Mexico. A study, "Long-range Air Transport of Dioxin from North American Sources to Ecologically Vulnerable Receptors in Nunavut, Arctic Canada," was conducted for the Montreal-based North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation by the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Queens College, City University of New York. The study covered a one-year period beginning in July, 1996. 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 across North America, said Barry Commoner, who co-authored the report. (NACEC)
Using an air-transport model developed by the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a research team headed by Commoner, of Queens College, New York, identified facilities which have caused Dioxin pollution at eight locations around Nunavut, the Canadian territory covering the eastern Arctic north of the 60th parallel to the pole. This study compiled 44,091 specific Dioxin sources, of which 16,729 were in Canada, 22,439 in the U.S., 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 last thing we need at this time is worry about the very country food that nourishes us, spiritually and emotionally, poisoning us," Watt-Cloutier told reporters. "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." (Mofina)
In many cases, the Inuit have no practical alternative to "country food." Although a few small general stores do business in Canadian Inuit hamlets today, all the food is flown in. Weeks-old produce is usually of very poor quality. No roads or natural land bridges lead south from the villages. The cost of air freight, compounded by distance, raises cost of a quart of milk to $4, and that of a battered head of lettuce to $3. A tiny frozen turkey the size of a stewing hen costs $40 in the Arctic.
Active as well as abandoned mining and military sites compound the problems of the Inuit with toxic organic compounds. Joe Kunuk, Mayor of Iqaluit, described recent efforts to clean up Iqaluit's Upper Base, a military installation established just north of the community by the U.S. Air Force during the early 1950s. Like a number of similar sites scattered throughout the North, the base was found to be contaminated with PCBs from a variety of sources. A clean-up program, co-ordinated with the regional Inuit Association and the Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut, provided more than 50 local people -- 90 per cent of them Inuit -- with training in toxic waste handling and disposal. All told, more than $2 million was spent to clean up the site, and local businesses benefited greatly from the project.
Extensive hydroelectric development also took place in James Bay during the 1970s, before an alliance of Native and non-Native peoples put a halt to hydroelectric development in the area. The creation of hydroelectric reservoirs intensified the methylation of inorganic mercury into methylmercury; once transformed, the methylmercury enters the food chain. In 1986, Hydro-Quebec and the Quebec government, along with the nine Cree communities of the James Bay region, signed an agreement to monitor exposure levels in the Cree population.
Chief Ed Jack, an Elder from the Taku River Tlingit First Nation in Atlin, B.C., described environmental problems associated with mining in the Taku Valley of northern British Columbia, about 30 miles inland from Juneau, Alaska. He described how his small community had witnessed firsthand the gradual destruction of salmon streams and wildlife habitat. However, over time, the Tlingit began to develop the skills necessary to challenge the accepted practices of resource-development companies. They developed effective communication strategies, launched challenges in the courts, and educated people in the community about environmental regulation. Jack gave this account at hearings conducted during 1996 and 1997 by the Canadian Polar Commission. (CPC)
There were three mines going, the Takuchi, the Polaris, and the Big Bull Mine. There were 250 men working three shifts day and night. They never stopped the work; they worked the graveyard, night shift, and day shift. Everything was brought up by barge. The stuff that came off the mine when they washed the ore went right into a creek, called Canyon Creek....The mine just dumped the garbage off the bridge into the plains, and you have a huge garbage pile lying in the plains. I say the `plains' because the glacier dammed up a lake, and twice a year the whole valley floods. The whole valley floods as high as you can see it, twenty feet of water, just the trees are sticking out. All that garbage gets washed away; at that time, I thought, they sure are smart and know how to get rid of their garbage. Later on, I thought about it, and all the tailings were put into the flood plain? Now, the scientists have checked into it, and those tailings are still there, giving off acid...still polluting the river.
Governmental actions are beginning to cut Dioxin emissions. In June, 1998, negotiators from 120 countries gathered in Montreal to start work on an unprecedented United Nations treaty to phase out DDT and eleven other toxic compounds that have been linked to cancers, birth defects and ecological disruption. Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States are working together to accomplish a phase-out of PCBs, and to develop environmentally sound disposal practices. (Binder, McAndrew)
In the United States, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency has promulgated regulations that should reduce dioxin emissions by 99 percent from municipal waste incinerators and by about 95 percent from medical waste incinerators. The United States Environmental Protection Agency also has promulgated regulations to reduce Dioxin from some hazardous waste incinerators, including cement kilns.
In Canada, environment ministers in June, 2000 accepted a Canada-wide Standard for Dioxins and Furans. Six types of sources, including waste incineration, burning salt-laden wood, residential wood combustion, and electric arc furnace steel manufacturing, have been identified for early action. The municipal waste incinerator in Quebec has undergone modifications to virtually eliminate its Dioxin emissions.
Jack Anawak, a member of the Canadian Parliament from Nunatsiaq, told the Canadian Polar Commission that
The first step is one that's already been taken: we've regulated PCBs, DDT, and other toxins that, when released to the environment, get carried up to the North and affect the people who have had nothing to do with the creation of the problem in the first place. We must get our own house in order, and that's what we are doing. The next step is to put pressure on the international community so that other countries will understand the consequences of their actions and stop polluting. (CPC)
Watt-Cloutier told the Canadian Polar Commission that the World Health Organization and similar groups must come to understand that the reclamation of indigenous wisdom is a process that will reap the greatest benefits for aboriginal populations. "Without that input and that kind of focus, the world really does run the risk of operating under the illusion that it is helping when, actually, sometimes, the reverse is happening," she said. "The dominant world will continue to be baffled as to what really ails us, despite the fact that they provide a lot of money and effort to try to help us. This very expensive and ineffective aid only perpetuates our problems and, in my opinion, is another subtle form of the big `C word' -- colonialism. In fact, this subtle form, in the appearance sometimes of true help with lots of funds attached to it actually keeps us and the donors stuck in a very non-productive form of dance, even destructive at times." (CPC)
One of the most acute problems is finding a replacement for DDT, residues of which have also been found in Inuit mothers' breast milk and the fat of arctic animals. The insecticide is still the first choice to kill the mosquitoes that transmit malaria, which kills more than a million children in tropical countries each year. Pyrethroids are presently favored, but they are more expensive. In South Africa, the mosquitoes developed a resistance against a pyrethroid within five years, whereas they never became resistant against DDT during 50 years of usage.
International negotiations in Bonn, Germany, aimed at an international treaty to eliminate organic toxins chemicals went slowly during the spring of the year 2000. "What we are talking about now is what qualifiers we can put on the word `elimination,'" one observer told the Nunatsiaq News, a newspaper serving Canadian Inuits, in its March 31, 2000 edition (Ell). Total elimination is impossible because Dioxin is an unintended byproduct of combustion whose production cannot be totally avoided. In its own laws, Canada uses the expression "virtual elimination," meaning "as little as technically feasible." Watt-Cloutier summarized the situation: "A comprehensive, verifiable, and rigorously implemented global convention to eliminate these POPs is required. Will we get it? Can Canada persuade others that such a convention serves their self-interests as well as ours?"(Watt-Cloutier)
- Binder, Sarah. "United Nations Sets out to Ben Chemicals Like DDT, PCBs." Ottawa Citizen, June 29, 1998, n.p.
- Canadian Polar Commission. For Generations to Come: A Canadian Conference on Contaminants, the Environment, and Human Health in the Arctic, October 8-10, 1996. Iqaluit, Northwest Territories. [ Paper listed at: http://www.polarcom.gc.ca/publications.htm#polarispapers,
and can be ordered thru the Ottawa Office: http://www.polarcom.gc.ca/contacts.htm ]
- Cone, Marla. "Human Immune Systems May be Pollution Victims." Los Angeles Times, May 13, 1996, A-1.
- Ell, Renate. "Bonn POPs Talks Fall Short of Expectations." Nunatsiaq News, March 31, 2000. [ http://www.nunatsiaq.com/archives/nunavut000331/nvt20331_09.html ]
- Lean, Geoffrey. "World Industry Poisons Arctic Purity; A Climatic Trick Dumps Chemicals from Afar on People and Animals in the Far North." The Independent (London), December 15, 1996, 15.
- McAndrew, Brian. "World Takes Aim at `Dirtry Dozen' Pollutants: Montreal Talks Bid to Ban Use of Worst Toxins." Toronto Star, June 29, 1998, 1.
- Mofina, Rick. "Study Pinpoints Dioxin Origins: Cancer-causing Agents in Arctic Aboriginals? Breast Milk Comes from U.S. and Quebec." Montreal Gazette, October 4, 2000, A-12.
- North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation. Study Links Dioxin pollution in Arctic to North American Sources. October 4, 2000. [ http://www.cec.org/ ] [ http://www.cec.org/news/announce/Data.cfm?varlan=english&vardate=60&unique_no=291 ]
- Saar, Robert A. [No title.] New York Times, January 4, 2000.
[ http://irptc.unep.ch/pops/POPs_Inc/press_releases/pressrel-2k/pr28.htm ]
[listed in: http://irptc.unep.ch/pops/newlayout/press_items.htm ]
- Watt-Cloutier, Sheila and Terry Fenge. "Commentary: impasse at POPs talks Unacceptable for Inuit." Nunatsiaq News, March 17, 2000. [ http://www.nunatsiaq.com/archives/nunavut000331/nvt20317_24.html ]