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Circumpolar Legislation on Pollutants

In partnership with the Arctic Yearbook, Arctic in Context is pleased to be running a series of interviews with the authors of the peer-reviewed articles that appeared in the 2016 edition. The authors with whom we will speak are among the Arctic experts whose research influences policymakers, business leaders, and media coverage. We encourage you to read further, and will provide a link to the full article at the end of each interview.

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In conversation with Arctic in Context director Erica Dingman, Doris Friedrich discusses the adverse effects of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) on the health of Arctic Indigenous peoples. While we’ve seen decreased levels of most pollutants listed in the Stockholm Convention—which was ratified in 2001, entered into force in 2004, and aimed to end production of the worst of these chemicals—this does not mean the danger has passed. New pollutants not accounted for in the Convention are entering the food chain, and warming temperatures may speed up the spread of some pollutants across the Arctic.

ERICA DINGMAN: You make the observation that Arctic nations have played a pivotal role in the enactment of several international environmental agreements including the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. What were the driving factors? What is the aim of the Convention?

DORIS FRIEDRICH: One of the main reasons behind the agreement were findings that revealed abnormally high levels of Persistent Organic Pollutants and heavy metals in Arctic indigenous people, particularly Inuit women in Northern Canada. While contaminants had been monitored in the Canadian Arctic since the 1970s, in the 1980s pollutants were found in traditional foods. The heightened concern led to the measurement of the pollutants’ levels in indigenous peoples themselves. The aim of the Stockholm Convention is to minimize the production and use of those pollutants on a global level, thereby also reducing their effects on the Arctic.

ED: POPs have a wide variety of deleterious effects. What effect do they have on the health of Arctic wildlife and the people who live there, specifically Indigenous peoples?

DF: POPs have a wide range of effects on all living beings. This includes damage to the nervous system, impairment of the immune system, damage to the reproductive system, and cardiovascular effects. In addition, they can increase the risk for certain types of cancer and interference with hormones.

Even a small amount of POPs can have an effect because of accumulation across the food chain. Animals higher up the food chain, such as seals or other marine mammals, test for high levels of pollutants. This is particularly important for Indigenous people, as they consume more of those animals and therefore have a higher risk of consuming those accumulated pollutants.

ED: Has this caused Indigenous peoples—you mentioned specifically Inuit—to reduce their consumption of traditional foods?

DF:  There’s actually very little information on this. It’s not clearly communicated to different communities which foods are safe to eat, and there’s confusion about the present levels of pollutants, as well as threshold levels for consumption. According to what I read in the news, people in rural communities are not sure what they can eat. Some might choose to be on the safe side and decrease their hunting and consumption of wild animals. Others are frustrated and angry over the inadequate information provided, and they continue as before. Thus, more research and communication of the results is required here.

ED: So the problem persists despite the Stockholm Convention.

DF: Exactly. While the levels of most pollutants listed in the Stockholm Convention have decreased, there’s still the problem of new pollutants that were not considered before. New chemicals, with similar effects to the effects of known pollutants, are constantly developed and used. They include, for example, Brominated Flame Retardants, which are widely used in household products, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products.

ED: What role does climate change play in the spread of POPs?

DF: Climate change affects transport processes and pathways, as well as the degradation processes of POPs. Warming temperatures are also likely to speed up the transport of pollutants in the Arctic. They can increase secondary emissions because the higher temperatures make the pollutants more volatile and more easily transported.

Then there are other factors that come with climate change, like increased precipitation, that would lead to more deposits of those pollutants in the Arctic. There are also many indirect effects of climate change, such as changes in land use and emissions from intensified mining and ship activities. The migration routes of wildlife might shift, affecting how POPs are transported and spread. Furthermore, some adaptation measures by humans might increase the level of POPs. For example, the risk of vector-borne diseases such as malaria may increase, as the disease is spread by mosquitoes that move northward with higher temperatures. DDT, a recognized POP, could become more widely used to handle the spread of malaria worldwide.

All in all, it’s not completely clear in which direction climate change will affect the POP levels and spread. Some processes work against the spread of emissions and degradation of POPs, while others work the exact opposite way. As I mentioned before, most pollutants listed in the Stockholm Convention are declining, but there are others such as HCB and some PCBs that have increased in some locations. But it’s not clear as to whether this is an effect of climate change.

ED: As some pollutants have declined others are on the rise because of new types of industrial activity.

DF: Yes. This is a huge problem for research because monitoring is already expensive and complex, and then you have to constantly add new pollutants.

ED: Even prior to the creation of the Arctic Council, Arctic nations have been advocating for resolution of environmental issues. How has this advocacy influenced Arctic Council policy and the negotiation of international agreements?

DF:  Prior to the establishment of the Arctic Council, the eight Arctic nations had already signed the non-binding Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) in 1991. One of the reasons was the alarmingly high level of pollutants found in the breast milk of Arctic indigenous women. So the states committed to cooperate on scientific research on pollution, in particular POPs, and to control them and reduce their effect on the Arctic environment. In order to achieve this, they established five programs, one of which is the Arctic Monitoring Assessment Program. When the Arctic Council was established five years later in 1996, it subsumed all the programs and continued on the course of AEPS. This is why the protection of the environment was and still is assigned great value among the tasks of the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council has played an important role in the negotiation of the Stockholm Convention, which was ratified during Finland’s first chairmanship, and later in its implementation during the Icelandic chairmanship from 2002 to 2004. Promoting international cooperation regarding pollutants had been one of the goals of the Arctic Council when it was established.

ED: Despite efforts by the Arctic Council and Indigenous groups to reduce pollutants, there has been limited success. Why?

DF: International and, particularly, global agreements are always difficult, as the history of agreements on climate change shows. There are some factors that make international agreements on POPs tricky. For example, it’s hard to say where exactly individual pollutants come from because they travel across vast distances and take a long time to degrade. So it’s difficult to assign responsibility to any specific country.

Another issue is the lack of data and monitoring, as well as the challenges posed by the so-called new pollutants of emerging concern. The existing research provides a rather deficient basis for decision-making. Producing further research also requires a lot of funding, and the available funds are limited.

ED: Can you give us a specific example of how some countries are addressing the issue of pollutants? 

DF: The United States is an interesting case. It had, for example, some agreements with Canada before the Stockholm Convention, which aimed at limiting pollutants. It also provided funding for research on POPs. The U.S. signed the Convention but did not ratify it—the only Arctic country not to do so. Some of the Arctic countries have not ratified individual amendments, which add new pollutants to the list. It’s a varied picture even if it seems rather clear at first glance. All these exemptions and failures to ratify the Convention or its amendments could undermine its efficacy and credibility, standing in the way of further decline in the levels of pollutants.

ED: Is there anything you’d like to add?

DF: I’d like to emphasize how climate change and warming temperatures make the situation worse. Regulations cannot adapt quickly enough to discoveries of new pollutants or improved understandings of the influence of climate change. As the pollutants transform and degrade faster with higher temperatures, it is more difficult to evaluate the current levels of POPs and how they develop over time. At the same time, the potentially threatening effects of climate change, which might result in higher levels of these pollutants, make it more urgent to agree on flexible and effective regulations.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Doris Friedrich is a senior fellow at the Arctic Institute and a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna, Austria, where her research focuses on human-environment relations in the Arctic. She also writes for High North News.

Doris Friedrich's full article “Circumpolar Legislation on Pollutants: How Effective is Arctic Governance on Global Environmental Threats?” can be found here

[Photo courtesy of arctic_council]

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