Arctic has become world's chemical sink says WWF

The Arctic is becoming increasingly contaminated with toxic chemicals and pollutants that have never been produced or used in this region, WWF has warned in a report.

Arctic animals with thick layers of body fat, such as walruses and whales, act as chemical magnets and can end up with extremely high levels of toxic substances stored in their bodies. Copyright WWF-Canon / Kevin Schafer

Arctic animals with thick layers of body fat, such as walruses and whales, act as chemical magnets and can end up with extremely high levels of toxic substances stored in their bodies. Copyright WWF-Canon / Kevin Schafer

Air, river and ocean currents, as well as drifting sea ice and migrating wildlife species all help to carry industrial and agricultural chemicals to the Polar environment from distant places, according to the report, Tip of the iceberg: Chemical contamination in the Arctic.

Polar ice can then trap contaminants, often for long periods of time, before they are released into the environment as the ice melts. WWF has branded the Arctic as the "chemical sink of the globe" due to this phenomenon.

Toxics officer for WWF's Arctic programme, Brettania Walker stated that not only was the amount of contamination increasing, but a wider variety of substances were now also being found.

"Modern chemicals are now appearing in many arctic species alongside older chemicals, some of them banned for over 20 years," she warned. "This alarming trend will continue if the current chemical regulation does not improve."

She added that the EU's proposed chemical legislation, REACH, now needed to be put into practice (see related story) in order to set a new global standard for putting both the production and use of chemicals on a safe and sustainable path.

Several previous reports have warned about high levels of older chemicals in animals such as polar bears, where the amount of toxins have begun to affect their hormones, immune and reproductive systems (see related story), but WWF's report suggests that new dangers to Arctic wildlife are now beginning to emerge.

Animals living in the Arctic tend to have thick layers of body fat that keeps them warm in the cold conditions and gives them a constant supply of energy in a place where food can become scarce. Unfortunately, this fat acts as a magnet for storing toxic substances.

WWF's report showed that, in particular, high levels of chlorinated paraffins, unrestricted chemicals used in paints, sealants, adhesives, leather and rubber processing, has been found in many animals, including grey ringed seals, walruses and beluga whales, as well as many types of birds and fish.

Brominated flame retardants and fluorinated chemicals, many of which are inadequately regulated, were also found to have contaminated a large number of species such as polar bears, whales, Arctic foxes, seals, porpoises and birds.

If current trends and inadequate regulation continue, levels of brominated flame retardants could reach similar levels to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) within the next 10 to 20 years, according to Ms Walker.

"Arctic contamination has serious implications not just for the health of Arctic animals but also for Arctic indigenous peoples who rely on a tradition marine diet," she warned. "Strong chemical regulation is needed to prevent hazardous chemicals from reaching the Arctic in the first place."

By Jane Kettle


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