Chemicals from fire retardants and other materials have accumulated in the bodies of seals, whales and other animals of the northern Bering Sea, showing that pollutants emitted thousands of miles away continue to contaminate animals on which Indigenous people depend for food, according to a newly published study.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, focuses on marine mammals and reindeer harvested by the Yup’ik residents of St. Lawrence Island, at the southern end of the Bering Strait.
Through samples donated by hunters, researchers – who included island residents themselves – found varying levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and per- and polyfuoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in marine mammals and reindeer on or around the island.
PBDEs are a class of compounds used as flame retardants. PFAS compounds are also used for that purpose but are found in a wide variety of consumer products such as cosmetics, clothing and cookware; they are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment. PBDEs have been phased out in the United States since 2004, but there is no national PFAS ban.
The study of subsistence foods at St. Lawrence Island shows how contaminants carried to the far north by atmospheric and ocean currents persist for years and sometimes decades, burdening the region’s Indigenous people.
“We are being contaminated against our will,” said study co-author Vi Waghiyi, who is from Savoonga, one of the two villages on the island.
Still, the findings should not deter people from conducting their harvests of negepik, or traditional foods, said Waghiyi, the environmental health and justice program director at Alaska Community Action on Toxics, a nonprofit environmental health organization based in Anchorage.
“Our people still feel the benefits outweigh the risks. It is our identity,” she said. “We’re intricately tied to our lands and waters and wildlife that have sustained our people since time immemorial.”
The St. Lawrence Island findings are, in some ways, similar to those of other studies of contaminants in animals around the Arctic.
There were some new discoveries, however. The study appears to be the first to document PFAS compounds in bowhead whales, with traces showing up in mangtak – the name for skin-attached blubber – and blubber alone and muscle.
It also found that of all tested species, seals generally had the highest levels of PBDEs. That shows how persistent those chemicals are in the environment, said Pam Miller, ACAT’s executive director.
“Even though they’ve been subject to some global regulation and regulation in the U.S., they’re still very ubiquitous in the Arctic and still prevalent in people and wildlife that people depend on for traditional foods,” said Miller, another co-author.
The study, which used tissue samples provided by local hunters, is the latest in a series in a research program conducted by ACAT and its partners. The program traces back to the advocacy of Annie Alowa, a former health aide in Savoonga, who pushed for cleanup of military pollution on the island after watching so many villagers get cancer and other health problems. Much of the inspiration for ACAT’s founding and its continued work; she died of cancer herself in 1999.
The research program is notable for its community focus and reliance on local leadership and knowledge, said Waghiyi, who was named last year to a White House advisory council on environmental justice. “It’s one of the few where we’re not just research subjects,” she said.
While this newly published study focuses on pollutants that are carried long distances in the air and in the ocean, other work in the program is continuing to examine the effects of pollution from Northeast Cape, a military site closed in the 1970s, and other on-island sites.
St. Lawrence Island gets pollution from both faraway and local sources, and it is possible to distinguish between the two, said study lead author Sam Byrne, an assistant professor of biological and global health at Middlebury College.
Proximity to military sites and places like landfills is one distinguishing factor, he said. The types of chemicals discovered is another factor, as lighter compounds are more volatile and can be more easily carried by the winds, while heavier compounds such as some of the PCBs found near Northeast Cape, tend to not travel far.
The problems go beyond emissions of dangerous chemicals, Waghiyi and Miller said. Melt of sea ice and glacier ice, thaw of permafrost and the proliferation of microplastics in the ocean is also spreading contamination, some of what had previously been sequestered in frozen states, they said.
“The convergence of climate, chemicals and plastics has not been fully appreciated by the scientific community or climate-justice activists,” Miller said.
The eight-nation Arctic Council is one organization that has made the connection between climate change and persistent organic pollutants, known as POPs.
A report issued at a meeting last year of high-level officials from council nations showed how climate change has eroded some of the progress made since the mid-1990s by international bans and phaseouts of dangerous chemicals. In some places of the Arctic, the report said, POPs are even increasing in concentration after earlier declines.
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