Several years ago, Scientists studying the effects of toxic chemicals found in the blood of people from heavy industrial areas decided that they needed to compare these people with another group of people who would not have such chemicals in their blood. They went to the Arctic, thinking that would be the least likely place to find toxic chemicals. When they examined blood taken from the Arctic people, they were surprised to find they also contained the toxic chemicals. Those findings were one of the starting points for a major study on pollution in the Arctic, conducted by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program. Research from Arctic countries soon showed that far from being the clean, unpolluted land of everybody’s imagination, the Arctic was in danger of becoming one of the more polluted spots on earth. Air and water currents carry the chemicals to the Arctic. Once there, they tend to stay, becoming taken up by Arctic plants and animals, and ending up in the bodies of indigenous peoples who rely on local foods. This information, coupled with the efforts of Arctic Indigenous Peoples, persuaded the United Nations to sponsor talks leading to a treaty to try to eliminate the worst of the chemicals. That treaty (the Stockholm Convention
) has now come into force.
The Current Picture
There is a concern among Arctic Indigenous Peoples that because there is now a treaty to deal with some of the toxic chemicals found in the Arctic, countries around the Arctic and around the world may relax a little too much. While it is true that some substances, such as PCBs, appear to be on the decline in the Arctic, some other substances are still increasing in Arctic wildlife. It will require continued monitoring and research by Arctic countries to detect these new substances, and to ensure that they are not endangering the health of Arctic Peoples and the Arctic environment. One of the current concerns is over the use of substances known as brominated flame retardants. These substances were widely used to fire-proof furniture and electronics. They have now started showing up in the bodies of people and animals in the Arctic. It is still not clear what effects these chemicals may have on the health of people or animals.
Toxics and Food
Toxic substances have been detected in some Arctic Peoples at levels that are high enough to cause concern about health effects. How that information is communicated to people is very important. There are many positive aspects of eating traditional foods, and health risks may come from switching to imported foods. At the moment, health professionals over most of the Arctic are advising people that the benefits of eating their traditional foods outweigh any risks. It is important to Indigenous Peoples to be able to maintain that balance. Apart from the financial hardship that could be caused by switching from local to imported foods, such a change would also affect the cultural and spiritual lives of Arctic Indigenous Peoples. A deep attachment to the land, and the food it provides, are central elements of Arctic indigenous cultures.
What Arctic Indigenous Peoples Are Doing About Persistent Toxic Substances
Government ministers and senior United Nations officials have highlighted the part played by Arctic indigenous peoples in securing the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Their campaign to provide a human face to the problem of the pollutants ensured that the negotiations did not become just arguments over facts, figures and economic interests. Also, as consumers of Arctic plants and animals, Indigenous Peoples are careful observers in any changes in their environment, and can alert larger audiences to those changes, signaling the need for further study. Arctic Indigenous Peoples encourage their national governments to continue support of AMAP, and also taking part in their own projects to add to knowledge about the presence and effects of toxic substances in the Arctic. For instance, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North worked with the AMAP secretariat to fill in knowledge gaps about the presence of persistent toxic substances in the food of peoples in the Russian Arctic. The report of that project is available here.