An Overview of POPs
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are chemicals that are easily transported by air and ocean currents. They also bioaccumulate in the fatty tissues of marine and terrestrial mammals and, in high concentrations, pose health risks for humans. Unlike pollutants like Black Carbon, POPs are long-lasting in the cold, low-light conditions of the Arctic. In 2001, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants listed 12 key chemicals of particular concern, the so-called “Dirty Dozen” (Stockholm Convention, 2001). Some of these original POPs include: DDT, hexachlorobenzene, PCBs, and chlordane (Stockholm Convention, 2001). These chemicals are the direct and/or indirect byproducts of manufacturing processes, agricultural practices, waste, and energy production (European Environment Agency, 2017). More recently, POPs are being found in flame retardant coatings, paint, and pharmaceuticals. Since many of these sectors are not common in the Arctic, where are the POPs coming from? Pollutants arrive in the Arctic via air and marine currents from lower latitudes where these industrial processes are more prevalent.
POPs and Human Health
Once pollutants reach the Arctic Ocean, they are incorporated into algae which are then eaten by consumers like zooplankton and fish. POPs then bioaccumulate through the food chain, as shown in the diagram here:
The top species in the Arctic, like seals, narwhal, walrus, and polar bear, contain the highest concentrations of pollutants in their fatty tissues because of this bioaccumulation process. Mercury, another pervasive pollutant found in the Arctic, also bioaccumulates up the trophic levels. These species are hunted regularly by Indigenous communities in the Canadian Arctic for subsistence. Since the 1980s, studies of Inuit communities have recorded some of the highest concentrations of POPs in the world which places great health risks onto pregnant women and their children (Dewailly and Furgal, 2003). High toxin levels can be linked to slowed growth rates and low birth weight in infants, psychomotor deficits, learning disabilities, and otitis media (Dewailly and Furgal, 2003). All of these issues can negatively affect a child’s attention span and focus which presents problems for early education.
International conventions like the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001 are a key part of solving the issue of POPs in the Canadian Arctic. Ultimately, however, cutting pollution emissions from the energy, manufacturing, and agricultural sectors in lower latitudes is the only permanent and 100% effective solution to the problem. Over recent decades, monitoring organizations have seen a decline in the emissions of particular pollutants which is encouraging for indigenous communities in the Arctic.
Progress on this public health issue is difficult because studying POPs in the Arctic is challenging due to remote and small communities, harsh weather conditions, and the many different pollutants. This leads to the first policy recommendation:
- Create an incentive program funded by universities for Inuit hunters to collect samples, conduct population surveys, and run diet monitoring questionnaires
This method of research would incorporate traditional knowledge in a way that hasn’t been done frequently. Inuit hunters possess a vast archive of information regarding their local environment. Employing them in a program like this would not only benefit the scientists and their research as well as provide a second source of income to hunters. Part of the program would also require that scientists form genuine relationships with Inuit communities to ensure that such communities would be involved in the research itself. A program like this could be funded through research grants provided by universities or funding agencies like the NSF.
2. Through research, identify the long-term symptoms of specific pollutants in the human body
While pollutant concentrations are generally trending down, there needs to be a thorough examination of the current toxin concentrations in four areas of the environment: hydrosphere, atmosphere, terrestrial and marine mammals, and in the human body. It is crucial for scientists and medical professionals to understand the full extent of the harmful effects from these pollutants. A wide variety of pollutants, including Mercury, should be tested for to ensure a thorough examination is completed. By completing a study of this nature, scientists will also better understand which pollutants are being found in high concentrations and take actions to eliminate them from their respective source sectors.
Dewailly, E. and Furgal. C. Northern Lights Against POPs: Toxic Threats in the Arctic: POPs, the Environment and Public Health. Chapter 1. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003.
European Environment Agency. “Indicator Assessment: Persistent Organic Pollutant Emissions.” February 2021. https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/eea32-persistent-organic-pollutant-pop-emissions-1/assessment-10
Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPS). Stockholm, Sweden. May 2001. http://chm.pops.int/Home/tabid/2121/Default.aspx