New chemicals may be less toxic for Arctic wildlife: researcher

Preliminary research shows some chemicals used in many everyday items like pesticides and clothing may be better for the environment than the original persistent organic pollutants they replaced.

‘It’s really nice to see that some of the things that we intended to do are actually working'

'These new contaminants don't build up to the same degree,' says Carleton University's Adam Morris, 'the mammals seem to be able to break them down and get rid of them.' (submitted by Adam Morris)

An academic at Carleton University says his preliminary research in the Arctic shows some newer chemicals used in many everyday items like pesticides and clothing may be better for the environment and safer for wildlife than the original persistent organic pollutants they replaced.

Adam Morris, a PhD graduate based in Ottawa, travelled to the North each summer from 2007 to 2011. 

He did research in Resolute Bay, Pangnirtung, Gjoa Haven, and Yellowknife, working closely with local hunters to gather water and plant samples and to examine Arctic char, seal, caribou, wolves and polar bears.  

'A lot of people in the South still don't really understand that contaminants get up here and build up in the food chain,' says Morris. (submitted by Adam Morris)

And what he found surprised him. 

Morris, who delivered a talk this week at the Nunavut Research Institute, says his preliminary findings show that the newer chemicals, while still toxic, are breaking down more in the ecosystem and that they may be metabolized more easily by wildlife. That means the chemicals aren't building up as much in the Arctic environment.

Adam Morris and his team collected water samples to check for toxicity. (submitted by Adam Morris)

"It's really nice to see that some of the things that we intended to do are actually working," Morris said.

The chemicals Morris studied include PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), flame retardants used in almost everything from clothes to furniture and computers and endosulfan, an insecticide that increased in use due to bans on other pesticides. 

The chemicals have since been added to the list of toxins considered Persistent Organic Pollutants under the Stockholm Convention and are being phased out globally, but Morris's work suggest they aren't biomagnifying in the food chain to the same degree as the original POPs banned in 2001.

Nunavut hunter still concerned

Peter Amarualik Sr., a hunter in Resolute Bay, Nunavut that's assisted Morris with his research, says the new information is only somewhat reassuring.

"These are the animals that we eat here," Amarualik said. "What people throw out there seems to be showing up in our animals. 

Adam Morris and Peter Amarualik Sr. taking a break from gathering samples in Resolute Bay. (submitted by Adam Morris)

"It doesn't look good."

But Morris says understanding what's happening to plants and animals so far away from the source of these contaminants — i.e. clothing and furniture factories and warehouses in different parts of the world — is extremely significant.

"It's a pretty unique system," Morris said. "A lot of people in the south still don't really understand that contaminants get up here and build up in the food chain."

Morris says toxins travel from the South to the North through what is called the grasshopper effect or global distillation.

'These are the animals that we eat here,' says hunter Peter Amarualik. (submitted by Adam Morris)

The chemicals accumulate in warmer areas near the middle of the Earth and eventually travel North. They end up hopping (like a grasshopper) from lake to lake and current to current until they reach the Arctic.

Morris says many of the contaminants break down along the way, but the most persistent pollutants make it all the way to the Arctic ending up in the ecosystem and affecting the population.

The new chemicals are breaking down more in the ecosystem says Morris. (submitted by Adam Morris)

Amarualik says he's still worried about the effects pollution and climate change have already had on his Arctic home.

"What they have done over there has done enough damage," he said. "They have to start cleaning up."

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to clarify that the chemicals in this study are in fact toxic and are being phased out globally.
    Oct 05, 2016 3:53 PM CT

About the Author

Sima Sahar Zerehi

Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.