One American scientist is taking pollution in the Arctic so seriously she's funding the start of a new project herself.

Carol Reinisch is paying out of her own pocket to start a study using mollusks, such as clams, to monitor pollution in the Northwest Passage.

The semi-retired scientist and environmentalist said there's a need to get baseline data now on clams along the Northwest Passage before it becomes a regular shipping route.

"My point is not to impede that — but my point is you must have an environmental monitoring program in place," she said.

"There's an absolute requirement for baseline data. We did not have baseline data with the Exxon Valdez, we really did not have baseline data in certain species with the BP oil spill. But I think it's absolutely essential to get baseline data with one species before this really opens up — and you and I both know that it's going to."

Reinisch has studied the effects of industrial pollution on clams in places like Massachusetts and Prince Edward Island.


American scientist Carol Reinisch takes a sample from a clam at the Nunavut Research Institute in Iqaluit on Wednesday. She is starting a project looking to use clams as environmental monitors for pollution in the Northwest Passage. (Daniel MacIsaac/CBC)

She said there is an established link between pollution and leukemia in clams. Clams don't move around much, so they indicate changes in pollution levels over time.

The Nunavut Research Institute hosted Reinisch during her stay in exchange for her expertise and work with the students. Students helped collect samples of both healthy and contaminated clams, and they also received training in taking samples from the clams and how to work with them in a lab.

Mary Ellen Thomas, senior researcher at Nunavut Research Institute, said Reinisch's project makes sense, though it is also ambitious and long-term.

"But if we can start by building local capacity do this work independently, then we don't need to rely on southern institutes to do this work for us," she said.

Reinisch hopes more institutions and students will carry on the project, providing a long-term way of monitoring pollution in the passage.

The American researcher has worked with Environment Canada in the past but said, because of budget cuts and the urgency of the issue, she decided to fund the start of this project herself.