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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Arctic Toxins

Air Date: Week of

Part One: In the farthest north reaches of the Arctic in Greenland and Canada you might not expect to find high levels of pollution. But as reporter Marla Cone of the Los Angeles Times has found, the Arctic Inuit hold the highest levels of contaminants ever recorded in humans in their bodies.
Part Two: We continue our interview with reporter Marla Cone of the Los Angeles Times, who has been tracing the migration of industrial chemicals North to the Arctic. She explains how contaminants accumulate there at the top of the food chain in animals and in humans, and what that means for health and cultural survival.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

At the top of the world, about 650-thousand people inhabit the Arctic regions of Canada, Russia and Greenland. They are called the Inuit, and for thousands of years they’ve hunted seal and whale in a harsh expanse colored by white and blue.

(Photo: Marla Cone)

Now, one might think that people who live in the wild, and are so close to the land and ice and nature, would be free of the pollution that plagues much of industrial society. But as our guest today, Los Angeles Times reporter Marla Cone, came to realize as she sojourned among the Inuit, these people have been severely poisoned by their modern neighbors to the south.

And the Inuit of Greenland have the highest concentrations of industrial chemicals and pesticides found in any humans on Earth – levels so extreme that some of their breast milk and tissues could be classified as hazardous waste.

You see, the very natural lifestyle of the Inuit exposes them to the toxic industrial chemicals that migrate up the marine food chain. What happens is the molecules of PCB that leach from old electric equipment, factories or landfills can wind up in little fish in the ocean. And then they are eaten by bigger fish and bigger fish, and so on up the food chain, with the poisons concentrating at each step right into the bodies of seals and whales -- the traditional diet of the Inuit.

That same concentration up the food chain happens with other synthetic and toxic chemicals, including pesticides, solvents, and mercury from power plants. Marla Cone is here now to discuss her reporting. Welcome, Marla.

CONE: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: So Marla, tell me, just where did you go on your expeditions and what did you find?

CONE: I imagine that I’ve been to places that 99.99 percent of the world will never visit – very remote areas, way far north. Kanak, Greenland, which is the northernmost civilization on Earth; parts of Alaska, the North Slope of Alaska; northern parts of Canada. I’ve traveled throughout the Arctic.

CURWOOD: What’s it like – what’s it look like in these Inuit villages up there at the top of the Earth?

(Photo: Marla Cone)

CONE: Oh, it’s amazingly isolated. You just see huge, towering icebergs, bigger than any skyscraper. It’s really hard to get any sense of perspective and space. Everything is white. It blends in with the horizon. You see things that look so close are actually so far away. So when we headed by dogsled to their ancestral hunting grounds, it was this narrow little stretch of blue in the distance. And it turned out it was about 40 miles -- 35, 40 miles by dog sledge.

CURWOOD: And you were there – I’m thinking this was probably the summer, right?

CONE: I was there in June, early June, which is considered their late spring. And it was colder than anything I’ve ever felt, and I grew up in Chicago. So, yes, it was very cold, even in summer.

CURWOOD: I wonder if you could read from some of your writings that you describe this place.

(Photo: Marla Cone)

CONE: Sure. In this hostile and isolated expanse of glacier-carved bedrock and frozen sea, survival means that people live as marine mammals live, hunting like they do, wearing their skins. No factory engineered fleece compares with the warmth of a seal skin parka, mittens, and boots. No motor boat sneaks up on a whale like a hand-made kayak lashed together with rope. No snowmobile flexes with the ice like a dog-pulled sledge crafted of driftwood. And no imported food nourishes their bodies, warms their spirit, and strengthens their hearts like the flesh they slice from the flanks of a whale or seal.

CURWOOD: And in another place you write, the Inuit say that their native food strengthens their bodies, warming them from within like a fire glowing inside a lantern. When they eat anything else, instead of fire inside they feel ice. What is it exactly that people are eating, and how much of it compared to what we eat down here?

CONE: They are eating narwhal, which is a toothed whale. It has a tusk, a single tusk. It’s an unusual type of whale. It’s about a ton, each narwhal. They eat a lot of seal, ringed seal. They eat anything else they can find. They eat seabirds, they eat caribou if they can find it, they eat fish. But most of their diet, at least the meat portions of their diet, are whale and seal.

CURWOOD: So, you say they slice off the whale or seal blubber. Can you describe that for me, please?

CONE: They slice off chunks of the blubber and the skin, it’s called muktuk. They eat it raw. They slice it off with their knives right on the ice there, and chew on it like we would, I guess, beef jerky. And with seal, it’s always cooked. They boil it. And they pull slices, they pull ribs out of the pot that they’re boiling it in with their knives. They eat the fat and the meat of the seal.

CURWOOD: I imagine that this is an important social as well as survival ritual, and that they must have invited you to partake. I'm wondering what…

CONE: Oh, yes, I’ve…


CONE: I’ve eaten everything that they eat. In fact, you crave it when you’re out on the ice. It’s the only thing, like I said, that keeps you warm. I really felt like I could go so much longer, and last so much longer in the cold after I’d eaten some seal.

CURWOOD: It’s mostly fat, right? I mean, that’s blubber, right?

(Photo: Marla Cone)

CONE: Yes, and the skin is pretty tough on a seal, or a whale. And when I asked my translator – I said, how do you chew this stuff? He just looked at me and said, well, you don’t chew it, you just swallow it.

CURWOOD: [Laughing] So, you’re worried about gaining weight out on this trip, huh?

CONE: Boy, you burn it out there. You really burn those calories out there. When we were out on the ice, we really did not have any other food. They brought some tea, they brought some bread, some Danish-type spreads. And if you didn’t eat seal and whale you would not survive out there.

CURWOOD: So this then is the lifestyle that these people have been living for thousands of years, and I guess it’s pretty much the same outwardly as it’s been over those last thousands of years. But it turns out that, I guess, inside the very people themselves there’s this substantial change. And I’m wondering, Marla, if you could tell us how the Inuit found out that they had been so heavily contaminated?

CONE: Well, it came as quite a surprise to these people. Nobody suspected that the Inuit were contaminated. When you look back, it makes sense, because they do live so high on the food chain. But everybody suspects that these contaminants -- PCBs, DDT, mercury, all these various contaminants that we’re so familiar with today -- have been in the arctic since the 1940s. They were first detected in seals up there in the 1970s. But nobody paid that much attention because the levels in seals weren’t that high, they were lower than they were in Europe, and the Great Lakes, and those types of places. So nobody really thought that much about it.

Then in 1987, Dr. Eric Dewailly, from Levalle University in Quebec, was surveying contaminants in breast milk as part of a province-wide look at PCBs and DDT. He just happened at the time to meet a midwife from Nunavik which is the arctic portion of Quebec province. And she asked if he wanted to sample milk from women there. He wasn’t very interested, but he sort of agreed, thinking it might be useful as a blank, which is a sample which has no detectable pollution levels.

But then a few months later, when the first batches of samples arrived – they were glass vials of a half-cup of milk from each of 24 women – they arrived by airmail at the lab. And soon, Dewailly got a phone call from the lab director, saying something was wrong with the milk. The chemical concentrations were just off the charts – literally off the charts. The peaks overloaded the lab’s equipment so it ran off the page. The technician thought the samples must have been tainted in transit, he couldn’t figure out why they’d be so high.

But upon checking more breast milk, they discovered that the peaks were in fact accurate. These arctic moms had seven times more PCBs in their milk than the milk of moms in Canadian cities. And it was just astounding to these people. They had no idea that levels that remote would be that high.

CURWOOD: So Marla, how did these people get contaminated? How did they get exposed to this stuff?

CONE: These chemicals hitch a ride up north. They ride upon northbound winds and currents, and they can sink into the ocean. They get consumed by plankton, and then zooplankton, and then fish, and then seals, and then whales, and ultimately human beings.

CURWOOD: Some of this breast milk had, what, seven times the amount found typically in other Canadian women? This is – and the fact that they did not initially believe the results of the machines, of the testing? This is astonishing.

CONE: Right, they thought it was a mistake. They thought there was something wrong with either the equipment or the milk, because the levels were coming back so high. But then when they realized they were accurate, Dewailly contacted the World Health Organization. And then he heard from an expert there that he had never seen levels so high, and that these levels were so high that these women should stop breast feeding their babies.


CONE: And so Dewailly, who’s a public health official, he knew this was ridiculous advice. He said it’s the most nutritious food of all, not just in the arctic, but anywhere, and that this area is so remote that, what were these mothers supposed to do? There’s no formula, even if formula was as healthy as breast milk. So he couldn’t tell them to quit breast-feeding. But he knew he couldn’t hide the problem either.

CURWOOD: Now, let’s be clear about the mechanisms, Marla, that resulted in these poisons being in these women’s breast milk. How is it that they had so much?

CONE: With every step up the food chain, contaminants increase, not just two-fold, but sometimes 20-fold. So from plankton, to zooplankton, to fish, to seals, to whales, to humans, there are many steps in that food chain, that food web. And it increases every step of the way, so that the top predators of the arctic are the ones that are most contaminated. And the top predators are human beings.

CURWOOD: So, how much do people there know and understand about what’s been found in their bodies?

CONE: It depends where in the arctic. The government officials and the Inuit in Canada have done an excellent job of communicating the risk. They have meetings up there in very remote communities, they bring the scientists up. Eric Dewailly is still involved in this after 16, 17 years of it, and he goes up at least once a year to talk to the people about what the found.

But we’re talking about very technical stuff here, and we’re talking about a food source for these people that has so many health benefits, not just cultural benefits. Their art revolves around it, their hunting, their storytelling. Everything about life up there revolves around the hunting of whale and seal.

And they have typically been very healthy people, because of their diet. It’s full of nutrients, it’s full of iron. They can get virtually everything they need from these marine foods, especially omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for your heart. They have almost no cases of heart disease up in the arctic because of this.

So when scientists come up and tell them there’s contaminants in their food, they not only don’t have very many good choices – there’s some stores, but the food is usually stale, you can find boxes of cereal that are years old, and they don’t want to eat this stuff. And it’s not good for their health anyway.

CURWOOD: Marla Cone’s a reporter with the Los Angeles Times. She’s spent time among the Inuit people of the arctic, tracing the migration of industrial chemicals like PCBs. And we’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. I’m Steve Curwood, and you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Thomas Newman “Lunch with the King” AMERICAN BEAUTY SOUNDTRACK (Dreamworks - 2000)]

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood and with me is Los Angeles Times reporter, Marla Cone. She traveled to the way far North with the Inuit, tracing the migration of toxic industrial chemicals like PCBs.

And just before the break, Marla, you were telling me about the first breast milk testing which showed that Inuit women had PCB levels in their breast milk that were seven times higher than women in Canadian cities south of Arctic region. You were also saying that for the Inuit other foods are really unavailable, so even if they were inclined to alter their traditional diet, they couldn’t get them.

So, tell me, what are some of the human harms that may be coming from these exposures?

CONE: Well, the effects are pretty subtle that scientists have been able to find. They’ve found effects, and the effects are in the children, because what happens is that the mother passes this load of chemicals to her baby in the womb. Mostly in the womb, but also through breast milk. They can be subtle, they seem to be subtle, its effects on their developing brain.

(Photo: Marla Cone)

It could effect their memory, vocabulary, other cognitive skills, but also their immune system. It could weaken their immunity, and there are a lot of illnesses in the arctic -- a lot of ear infections, especially, which can cause hearing loss. And so scientists say these contaminants could be an explanation for the high disease rates in the arctic among children.

CURWOOD: So what you’re saying is that one of the things that these chemicals can do is impair immune systems, and there are a number of diseases that they’re seeing around hearing. What specifically are they seeing?

CONE: They’re mostly concerned about infections, respiratory infections and ear infections, otitis. The number of otitis, or ear infections, is very high in arctic children.

CURWOOD: Now, what about brain development? In the United States there have been studies that show that children of mothers who have been exposed to things like PCBs tend to have some differences in their intelligence and also in their emotional steadiness – some work out of the Great Lakes. Anything like that showing up in these children of the arctic?

CONE: Yes, there have been similar studies in the arctic, although they are smaller studies, fewer people. The logistics of this is very difficult to study these children. They have found similar effects from PCBs and the Inuit children of Canada. They found some memory-type issues in infants. But they’re still looking.

CURWOOD: What kind of studies did they do, exactly? Do you know?

CONE: Well, they did one study of 11-month-old babies in Nunavik, Canada. They repeatedly showed them a picture, and researchers recorded how readily these babies could recognize images they had already seen. This is a pretty standard test of measuring a child’s IQ, a baby’s IQ. And the infants with high amounts of PCBs in their bodies were 10 percent less likely to recognize the images than the infants with low PCB levels.

CURWOOD: I’m also wondering if people behave any differently. Some of these chemicals are considered to be neurotoxins, and can affect people’s emotional affect as well as their intelligence. What things are being seen, if any, along these lines? In terms of, say, learning disability or even delinquency?

CONE: There’s been no studies of that to date, any of the behavioral issues. And the neurological issues are pretty tricky to try to study in the arctic. Not only are there logistical issues of getting enough children, but there’s also the other social issues that could play into a child’s intelligence.

Any drinking by the mother – drinking, alcoholism is very high in the arctic. And they do say that the neurological effects they found on these infants are similar in scope to what they would expect if a mother had been drinking moderate amounts of alcohol. In other words, the effect is about the same. Just eating their foods, their natural, traditional foods, can have the same effect as if they were drinking while pregnant.

CURWOOD: Now, I also understand that you’ve been looking at what’s happening to some of the largest predators in the arctic, aside from people. And that at one point you actually were tracking polar bears in some of the Norwegian islands way, way up there, far off the northern coast of Norway. What was it like being with some of these scientists who know how to find polar bears?

CONE: These scientists are an amazing, hardy crew. They take their life in their hand to do this type of work. There’s a man named Andy Derocher who’s now working for Canada, who every spring they would spend a full month going up in helicopters in these Norwegian islands called Svalbard. And they’re up there tracking these polar bears, tranquilizing them, landing in their helicopter, and taking their fat and blood samples so they can see how contaminated they are.

They found some very weird things happening with those polar bears. There seems to be a whole missing generation of mothers from about 15 to 20 years ago. They just don’t seem to be around, and they’re not sure why. They think that perhaps they’re not denning, they’re not having cubs. So there could be fertility issues regarding the PCBs in these polar bears.

CURWOOD: First of all, what’s in their blood? What are they finding in their blood?

CONE: PCBs is the highest contaminant. That’s the most problematic one. There are about 200 chemicals in the polar bears, but PCBs are the ones that are considered the biggest problem.

CURWOOD: And what do they do to the hormones, to the natural chemicals in the bears?

CONE: They certainly mess up the hormones. Their testosterone levels are lower. They also affect the thyroid, and thyroid hormones are what help the brain develop.

CURWOOD: Sometimes these chemicals are linked to changes in the physical, sexual organs of animals. What, if anything, along those lines is showing up in polar bears?

CONE: They have found over the past few years a small number of half male, half female mothers. Some of them are still able to have cubs. But they do have some male reproductive parts and some female reproductive parts.

CURWOOD: I’m not sure I’d want to check that on a polar bear.

CONE: [Laughing] The scientists did show it to me. I couldn’t tell the difference, frankly, but they could.

CURWOOD: And so the polar bear is at this point is sedated? What do they do?

CONE: Yes, they sedate the adults. They fire tranquilizer guns from the helicopter, we’re about 10 feet off the ground, the helicopter is spinning, there’s snow flying. It’s just an amazing thing. It really feels like that helicopter is crashing, not landing. These are amazingly skilled pilots up there.

Usually they have a mom and some cubs. This is denning time, they just came out of the dens. So when the mother is down, they will land. And these cubs are four months old. And very few human beings have seen cubs in the wild that are that young. They’re adorable. They’re about 40 pounds, 35-40 pounds. They’ll lick your fingers. They’ve never seen a human being before. And they’re sort of wondering why their mother is snoozing there while all this excitement is happening.

CURWOOD: At this point they’re teddy bears, huh?

CONE: Yeah, they’re amazing, they’re just wide-eyed. And then they do have to – they sample their blood. They try to take it easy on the cubs. But then they tranquilize them before they take off on the helicopter, because they don’t want the cubs to wander off without the mom. At this point they cannot fend for themselves.

CURWOOD: And in a way, Marla, I take it that the story of the polar bears is similar to the initial discovery of what’s in the Inuit breast milk. In your articles you wrote that this Canadian researcher, this gentleman you were with, Andrew Derocher, had, what, wanted to study polar bears in Norway because he thought they would be a pure – virgin, if you would -- population? But I guess it didn’t turn out that way.

CONE: Right, it’s like a carbon copy of what happened with the human breast milk. He really wanted to go to Svalbard because it’s in the middle of nowhere, nobody expected to see high contaminant levels. It was a population of bears that was not hunted, unlike in Canada and some other areas. And so he was pretty shocked when he arrived and saw these high contaminant levels, and these hermaphroditic bears and these other problems.

CURWOOD: This is what may be happening with the bears, and you’ve told us some about what’s happening with the people, but talk to me a little bit about the options here. I mean, what do people do if they want to eat something different in many villages? It doesn’t sound to me like they have many options, frankly.

CONE: And that’s the dilemma. They don’t really have any options, at least healthy, nutritious options. They can go to their little village store. There will be imported food there. In Greenland it will be Danish food, in Canada, in Nunavik and Nunavut, it would be Canadian food. There are options, but they’re expensive. They’re processed foods, they’re not good for their hearts, they’re not good nutritionally.

So most arctic experts tell the Inuit to keep eating their traditional foods. There has been an effort in Nunavik, in Canada, to get people to eat more arctic char, a fish which is much lower on the food chain and full of good fatty acids, rather than beluga whale, which is very high on the food chain.

CURWOOD: And what about the young people? How much do they eat compared to the way their elders do?

CONE: The young people eat far less traditional foods than older people, and that’s just a fact of modernization. It really doesn’t have much to do with the contaminant loads.

CURWOOD: If young people are eating far less traditional foods, I wonder if this doesn’t end up helping the question of contamination?

CONE: The contaminants probably will decrease over time. Many of them already are decreasing, like PCBs. Others are increasing, like mercury. But if young people do eat more imported foods and stop eating their traditional foods, yes, their contamination levels will go down. But that does not mean their health will improve. If they’re eating a lot of processed foods, you’re talking about heart disease and diabetes and other problems.

CURWOOD: Now, some would say that climate change is related in that people in the arctic are seeing the effects of it a lot more rapidly than other places on the planet -- and this too comes from industrialized society. It sounds to me like these people are sort of having a double-whammy. As I understand it, the ice is shrinking there, certainly the thickness of it is shrinking in the high arctic. This has to affect their ability to hunt, and also the conditions for some of their prey. And they have these chemicals, as well, to deal with.

CONE: Yes, absolutely. And that is something that is more visual for them, more tangible. They see the melting of the ice, they know it’s harder to find their prey. And that is probably more of a concern for them than the contaminants, because these contaminants are invisible. They cannot see them, not sure they believe it, but they’re there.

CURWOOD: Marla, before we go, this is very difficult to look at, the question of people and animals really under assault from chemicals. What are the ways out? What are people doing to try to remedy this?

CONE: Oh, I guess I would have to say they know how to survive the arctic, they’ve learned it through countless generations, they’ve been through bad times before. Settlers brought horrible plagues and diseases to them a couple centuries ago, and they’ve survived that. I do believe that they will survive this. This is probably one of the worst environmental injustices in the world, one of the worst that I’ve come across. People who have now power over what is happening to their culture and their diet and their health. But the arctic people have the will to survive.

CURWOOD: Marla Cone is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She’s working on a book – you don’t have a title for the book yet, Marla?

CONE: No, I don’t.

CURWOOD: But when it comes out it will be about this subject, about the time that she spent in the high arctic. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

CONE: Thank you, Steve.

[MUSIC: Peter von Heineken “Slug” SLUG SOUNDTRACK (Island Records – 1995)]



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