Long-Distance Pollutants Found in Bering Sea Animals Hunted by Indigenous Peoples

Chemicals from fire retardants and other materials have accumulated in the bodies of seals, whales and other animals in the northern Bering Sea, showing that pollutants emitted thousands of miles away continue contaminate the animals that indigenous peoples depend on for food, according to a recently published study. study.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, focuses on marine mammals and reindeer captured by Yup’ik residents of St. Lawrence Island, at the southern end of the Bering Strait.

Through samples donated by hunters, researchers – including islanders themselves – have found varying levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and per- and polyfluoroalkyl 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 this purpose, but are found in a wide variety of consumer products such as cosmetics, clothing, and cookware; they are known as “eternal 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 ban on PFAS.

The study of subsistence foods on St. Lawrence Island shows how contaminants transported to the Far North by air and ocean currents persist for years, even decades, weighing down indigenous peoples in the region.

“We are infected against our will,” said study co-author Vi Waghiyi, from Savoonga, one of the island’s two villages.

Still, the results shouldn’t deter people from harvesting negepik, or traditional foods, said Waghiyi, director of the environmental health and justice program at Alaska Community Action on Toxics, a nonprofit environmental health organization. based in Anchorage.

“Our employees always believe that the benefits outweigh the risks. It’s our identity,” she said. “We are intimately connected to our lands, our waters and the wildlife that have sustained our people since time immemorial.

The results from St. Lawrence Island are, in some respects, similar to those from other studies of contaminants in animals around the Arctic.

However, there were new discoveries. The study appears to be the first to document PFAS compounds in bowhead whales, with traces appearing in mangtak – the name for fat attached to the skin – and fat alone and muscle.

He also found that of all the species tested, seals generally had the highest levels of PBDEs. This shows how persistent these chemicals are in the environment, said Pam Miller, executive director of ACAT.

[High levels of toxins in clams follow rapid warmup in Gulf of Alaska waters]

“Even though they have been subject to global regulation and regulation in the United States, they are still very ubiquitous in the Arctic and still prevalent among the people and wildlife that people depend on for traditional foods,” said said Miller, another co-author. .

The study, which used tissue samples provided by local hunters, is the latest in a series of research programs conducted by ACAT and its partners. The program dates back to the advocacy of Annie Alowa, a former Savoonga caregiver, who lobbied for a cleanup of military pollution on the island after watching so many villagers contract cancer and other health problems. Much of the inspiration for the founding of ACAT and its ongoing 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 appointed to a White House advisory board on environmental justice last year. “It’s one of the few where we’re not just research subjects,” she said.

While this recently published study focuses on pollutants that are transported long distances through the air and ocean, other program work continues to examine the effects of pollution from Northeast Cape, a military site. closed in the 1970s, and other on-island sites.

St. Lawrence Island is polluted from both distant and local sources, and it’s possible to distinguish between the two, said the study’s lead author, Sam Byrne, assistant professor of biological health and world at Middlebury College.

Proximity to military sites and places like landfills is a 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 winds, while heavier compounds such as some of the PCBs found near the Northeast Cape tend to not travel far.

The issues go beyond hazardous chemical emissions, Waghiyi and Miller said. Melting sea ice and glaciers, thawing permafrost and the proliferation of microplastics in the ocean are also spreading contamination, some of what was previously 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 an organization that has linked climate change to persistent organic pollutants, known as POPs.

A report released last year at a meeting of senior officials from Council nations showed how climate change has eroded some of the progress made since the mid-1990s through international bans and the phasing out of dangerous chemicals. . In some places in the Arctic, according to the report, POPs are even increasing in concentration after earlier declines.

Originally published by the Alaska Beaconan independent, nonpartisan news agency that covers the Alaska state government.

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