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New chemicals in Arctic’s toxic stew

The Arctic, already tainted by toxic chemicals like PCBs and DDT, is becoming the last stop for even more toxins, which are showing up in animals, a new report says.’s Miguel Llanos reports.
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The Arctic, already tainted by toxic chemicals like PCBs and DDT, is becoming the last stop for even more toxins, which are showing up in bears, whales and birds, according to a five-year assessment report by nations with Arctic regions. Two chemicals in particular stand out: one is used as a flame retardant in fabrics, TV sets, computers and other equipment; the second is a stain repellant.

“NEW CONTAMINANTS are also showing up in the Arctic,” the report said. “These include brominated flame retardants in Canada, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Norway ... and Sweden, as well as PFOS in North America and Svalbard (Norway).”

PFOS, which stands for perfluorooctane sulfonate, is used as a stain repellant. It’s worrisome because of its “extreme persistence. It does not seem to break down under any circumstances,” the authors said.

The report, which follows a first pollution overview in 1997, comes from a monitoring group of the Arctic Council, whose members are Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States. Dozens of scientists from those countries contributed scientific data to the report.

The Arctic has long been known as a repository for a class of chemicals — called persistent organic pollutants, or POPs — that are carried to the region by air or ocean currents. The report provided new data to support earlier research showing that well-known POPs like PCBs and DDT are contaminating Arctic natives as well as polar bears, Arctic fox, seals, killer whales, harbor porpoises, seagulls and peregrine falcons.

Studies have shown the chemicals accumulate in the fat of mammals through breast feeding and by eating animals lower on the food chain. “Some Arctic people are among the most highly exposed people on the globe because contaminants accumulate in their foods,” the report said.

Another concern is mercury emissions from power plants. The report’s authors said levels in the Arctic could increase if Southeast Asia continues to expand its power plant capacity.


The report also raised a flag about the potential impact of two lesser-known chemicals now reaching the Arctic. The retardants in question are known as PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers. These chemicals use bromine to prevent fabrics and equipment from burning.

“Data from seabirds, belugas and seals indicate that levels of the brominated flame retardant PBDE are increasing,” the report said.

The authors noted that use of brominated flame retardants has increased “drastically” in the past decade and annual worldwide production now tops 200,000 tons, largely in northern industrial areas.

“In some cases, brominated flame retardants can leach into the environment, where some of them are known to behave in a way that is similar to PCBs,” the report said. “PBDEs seem to travel over long distances in the atmosphere, and some studies have shown that they can be toxic to the immune system and can affect neurobehavioral development.”


The report also expressed concern that PFOS, the stain repellant, “is present at elevated levels in some Arctic animals” and yet “very little is known about the behavior in the environment of chemicals of this kind and their potential effects.”

“Levels in some polar bear liver samples from northern Alaska are high enough to make this one of the most prominent” types of toxic chemicals in the Arctic, the authors wrote. “PFOS has also been detected in blood of ringed seals in eastern Canada and in Svalbard and in Alaskan northern fur seals.”

“PFOS can leach from the materials in which it is used,” the report said, and “seems to be capable of long-range transport by some as yet unknown mechanism.”

The authors noted that the only U.S. manufacturer of PFOS planned to phase out production in 2003, but added that little is known about production in other countries.


The report’s authors urged nations to implement the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants — a treaty to phase out and ban some of the most dangerous pollutants — and to commit more resources to monitoring newer chemicals.

The World Wildlife Fund noted that Russia and the United States, two Arctic Council nations, had yet to ratify the treaty.

“Most of these chemicals come from outside the Arctic ... and are carried to the Arctic by wind and water currents,” Samantha Smith, director of WWF’s International Arctic Program, said in a statement. “Without a global ban, we can’t protect indigenous peoples and wildlife in the Arctic.”

President Bush last May endorsed the treaty and sent it for ratification to the Senate, which has yet to take action. Russia has signed the year-old treaty but also has yet to ratify it.

The full Arctic Pollution report is online at