By Marley McLaughlin
In the early 2000s, researcher and journalist Marla Cone published a book unlike anything the field of environmental history could have predicted; her book, Silent Snow: the Slow Poising of the Arctic, cites that over 67 tons of Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) along with other “Dirty Dozen” so-called legacy mass contaminants (DDT, miradex, dieldrin, chlorinade, plastics and foams) arrive every year in the very place thought most removed and pristine: the Arctic.
While the presence of these contaminants seems to defy all logic—the Arctic has ever utilized pesticides or insecticides and their animals never migrate—air currents and powerful ocean vectors play an “atmospheric hopscotch” delivering contaminants by the fastest and most direct route. This process endangers the delicate ecosystems of the circumpolar north as biomagnification alters “an array of odd and hardy creatures, from ice-clinging, single-celled algae to polar bears” along the ice edges.
In turn, the presence of mass contaminants has altered the composition of arctic inhabitants.
“We now know where it goes,” says Rob MacDonald of Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C. commenting on migratory PCB’s and mass pollutants from all over the world. About two-thirds of the PCB’s that arrive in the arctic stay there. These chemicals are “constantly seeking equilibrium,” as their elemental structures cause precipitation and condensation in cool atmospheric temperatures. Unfortunately, when PCB’s are ingested by sea creatures and humans they also “stay there”. PCB’s and other chemical toxins are non-soluble and remain in the body hibernating in fat stores.
Essentially, the fats that are supposed to save and sustain arctic inhabitants also endanger them. It has been demonstrated that people indigenous to the arctic generally have higher levels of mercury and PCB’s than people living in urban and highly polluted areas. Specifically, 93 percent of women tested in Finland and 68 percent in Nunavut’s Baffin region recorded mercury levels that far overreached standards protecting fetuses from neurological effects. In addition, many mammals pass on biochemical pollutants in fatty breastmilk. Cone notes that Dr. Peletier found the breastmilk of Inuit women on Nunivit to have chemical levels quite literally ‘off the charts’ on electrocardiogram testing equipment. Their milk was found to be thirty times higher in chemical concentrate that predicted. In one instance, breastmilk contamination levels spiked so high among the women of the Faroe Islands that a Dr. Weihe officially recommend not to breastfeed children.
While researchers and publications such as Cone’s Silent Snow warn people of the dangers that lie in arctic sea creatures, human breastmilk, and within human bodies as a result, a radical termination of subsistence lifestyles is not necessarily the solution. Nelson Frank, a Haida Native, explains that eating arctic foods “is not only a way of life, but also a life-enriching process,” whereby subsistence feeds more than the stomach. Therefore, as toxin levels in the arctic grow, the subsistence lifestyle becomes an increasingly complex issue where not only physical heath but also cultural survival is on the line.
Arctic inhabitants face a devastating dilemma: they must either reduce their reliance on the only foods that sustain them—particularly (breastmilk), seal meat, and whale blubber—or expose themselves to risks. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) concluded in the early 2000s that arctic contamination essentially “threatens to drive a wedge of fear between people and the land that sustains them.”
Marley McLaughlin is a MA student in the Department of History and Philosophy at Montana State University