WASHINGTON -- Toxic pollution that has mysteriously entered Canada's pristine Arctic region has now been linked to air emissions from specific municipal waste incinerators, cement kilns and industrial plants in the United States, Canada and Mexico, according to a new study released Tuesday.
Although there are few pollution sources in Nunavut, the region of Arctic
Canada studied, it is on the receiving end of toxic pollutants known as dioxin
that have been transported over long distances by the prevailing air currents,
says the report by the Center for Biology of Natural Systems of Queens
College in New York.
''Decision makers now have the ability to determine where dioxin is coming
from and where it is going,'' says Greg Block with the North American
Commission for Environmental Co-operation, a Montreal-based inter-governmental
organisation set up under the North American Free Trade Agreement
''This will be very helpful in prioritising cost-effective efforts to reduce
exposure,'' he says.
Block's organisation commissioned the report.
Dioxin are one of a dozen types of chemicals known as Persistent Organic
Pollutants or POPs, which accumulate in the fat of animals.
Dioxin, proven to cause cancer, immune deficiency and harmful reproductive
and developmental effects, are unintentionally produced as by-products of
incineration and industrial processes.
According to scientists, POPs are capable of being transported long distances
through the environment and end up settling in colder regions because of
The study released Tuesday was a response to numerous scientific reports
that revealed high amounts of dioxin in the food chain in the polar regions
and blood supply of indigenous people living in the Arctic, known as the Inuit.
In Nunavut, for example, even thought there are no significant sources of
dioxin within 500 kilometres, dioxin concentrations in Inuit mothers breast
milk are twice the levels observed in southern Quebec.
Now for the first time, this study reveals where exactly the dioxin
originated. The authors of the study hope this will aid international and regional
efforts to reduce dioxin at the source so that it never ends up in the food chain.
''The only possible way of dealing with the issue is going to the source and
preventing or reducing the amount of dioxin that comes out of that source,''
says Barry Commoner, a scientist at Queens College who headed the research
Using mathematical and meteorological models, the study analyses 1996-1997
data obtained by Canadian, Mexican and US environmental regulatory
The model estimated the amount of dioxin emitted by each source in the three
countries at its geographical location. Using weather and climate data, the
model then predicted which dioxin would reach various locations in Nunavut.
Overall the greatest contribution, about 70 to 82 percent, of dioxin in
Nunavut is coming from US sources.
About two-thirds of the total dioxin emission is caused by municipal waste
incinerators, medical waste incinerators, cement kilns burning hazardous
waste and backyard trash burning. Iron sintering, and copper and aluminums
melting, are other major sources of dioxin, according to the report.
While the contamination problem can seem overwhelming, the realistic
possibility of adequately stopping the pollution at specific sources is
strengthened by the study's finding that most of the airborne dioxin deposited
in Nunavut originates from an extremely small number of individual sources.
Six of the total North American sources identified as emitting the most
dioxin, for example, are located in the industrialised eastern half of the United States. These include three municipal waste incinerators, two iron sintering plants and one copper smelter.
Canadian sources contribute between 11 and 25 percent of dioxin reaching
Nunavut, while Mexican sources contribute about five to 11 percent. The
largest amount of dioxin emitted by a single Canadian source was a municipal
waste incinerator in Quebec.
No single Mexican source is ranked in the top 35 percent of sites listed.
Since the model used in the study relies on data from 1996 and 1997, the
current amount of dioxin coming from the reported sources are likely to be
much different because of recent pollution regulations, says Block.
''The snapshot could look different today since 1997 air quality regulations
have come into place,'' he says.
Michael McCally, an expert on dioxin who teaches at New York's Mount Sinai
School of Medicine called the report ''tremendously significant''.
''We have known for a long time that native communities living in the Arctic
circle thousands of miles from industry had high levels of dioxin in their
blood and tissue samples and now we have specified where the dioxin is actually
coming from,'' he told IPS in a phone interview.
Indigenous leaders are praising the researchers for finally pinpointing the
exact location of pollution sources that they said have contaminated their
communities for decades.
''For us, this particular study is very important,'' says Sheila Watt
Cloutier, an Inuit leader in Canada.
Tens of thousands of Inuit people living in Nunavut territory depend on
Caribou for food. Past studies have found that Caribou herds in the region are
contaminated by dioxin.
''Human exposure to dioxin is almost entirely (98 percent) through animal
foods, especially those that are rich in fat,'' according to the report
In Washington on Tuesday afternoon, indigenous leaders throughout North
America held a press conference in front of the US State Department. They
called for lawmakers to take tougher national and international action on
eliminating Persistent Organic Pollutants at the source.
''From the Great Lake tribes to the Native villages of Alaska, dioxin , DDT,
PCB and other chemicals are in the bodies of our traditional food web - from
the fish we eat - to the bodies of our people,'' says Tom Goldtooth, dire ctor
of the Indigenous Environmental Network, an advocacy group based in the
state of Minnesota.
In December in Johannesburg, South Africa, nations will begin the fin al
negotiating session of an international treaty that seeks to eliminate POPs.
Environmentalists and indigenous groups alike have accused the United States
of trying to weaken the treaty.
Shawn Larson, who works with Alaska Community Action on Toxics, a
Native American advocacy group, says her village is very concerned about the
health effects - like cancer, diabetes and learning disabilities that she says
POPs are causing.
''I have come here on behalf of my people to ask that the United States
government owns up to its responsibility to protect us as a people,'' she told
reporters on Tuesday.
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