Arctic Chill

In the far north, people and polar bears live in a snowy and remote wilderness. So why are their bodies among the most contaminated on earth?

By Michelle Nijhuis



Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic
By Marla Cone
Grove Press, 246 pages, $24

Far from centers of population and political power, the Arctic is easy for the industrial world to ignore. On the occasions the Arctic does make headlines, it's often portrayed as a white wilderness, the pristine home of the midnight sun. But as environmental journalist Marla Cone ably shows in her new book, Silent Snow, the Arctic is not so distant, nor so pristine, as we might think.

Cone, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, first ventured above the Arctic Circle in June of 2001. During the next two years she visited five northern countries, investigating what she calls the Arctic Paradox: “Arctic people and animals are hundreds of miles from any significant source of pollution, living in one of the most desolate spots on the planet,” she writes, yet “they are among the planet's most contaminated living organisms.”

How is this possible? Industrial chemicals, such as the notorious family of compounds known as PCBs, migrate north on air and ocean currents, gravitating toward cold climates. Some pollutants also ride northward in rivers, or in migratory birds, fish, and whales. “This pollution knows no borders, neither cultural nor political,” writes Cone.

No matter their mode of transportation, Cone explains, these contaminants frequently sneak into the Arctic food web. By accumulating in ocean sediments, they enter single-celled marine plants, which are eaten by tiny crustaceans, which are eaten by various fish, and so on toward the center of the web, where humans and polar bears await.

At each step the concentration of PCBs and other compounds can be magnified 20 times or more. Scientists first discovered industrial contaminants in the thick fat of Arctic animals in the late 1960s, and since then, Cone reports, researchers have found about 200 toxic compounds in Arctic people and wildlife. The list includes not only PCBs but also DDT, dieldrin, chlordane, mercury, and more recently recognized contaminants such as brominated flame retardants.

The effects of this onslaught are dramatic. Researchers believe pollutants are destroying the immune systems of harbor seals and killer whales, and suspect they underlie a recent, and sudden, ecological transformation of the Aleutian Islands. Scientists also blame toxic invaders for a panoply of health problems in polar bears. On the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, researchers link PCB contamination to the high numbers of bears with both male and female sex organs—three or four bears out of every hundred—as well as low thyroid hormone levels, weakened immune systems, and osteoporosis. Complicating these fearsome troubles is global warming, which is thinning the sea ice and shrinking bear hunting grounds throughout the Arctic.

Like polar bears, Arctic people are top predators, and they also exhibit horrifying levels of chemical contamination. Many communities depend on contaminated marine mammals for sustenance, since most imported food is too expensive and lacks the rich fat of seal and whale meat.

Cone describes the work of Canadian public health researcher Eric Dewailly, who found that the loads of PCBs and pesticides in the breast milk of Arctic women were up to 10 times higher than those carried in the milk of women from large Canadian cities. Dewailly also discovered that the bodies and breast milk of some people in Greenland met the technical definition of hazardous waste.

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is widely viewed as a midwife of the modern environmental movement and as the inspiration for a cascade of powerful conservation laws. Like Carson's famous work, Silent Snow tells an extraordinary tale and is supported by exhaustive research. Cone, who writes with the controlled, no-nonsense tone of an experienced beat reporter, succeeds in creating sympathy for the innocent victims of an environmental tragedy. She also clearly analyzes the international politics of the situation, and points to pioneering laws and regulations worth supporting, such as REACH, a proposed European Union policy to regulate the use of about 30,000 commercial chemicals and impose tough rules on those chemicals with known health or environmental effects.

But Silent Snow faces a much tougher audience than its predecessor, because today there are so many seemingly insoluble threats to the earth. Like so much of today's environmental reportage, it could have bored its jaded readers or scared them into hopeless inaction. Silent Snow does neither, thanks in part to the Arctic people themselves. Cone finds few who suffer their predicament in silence; many are outraged, infuriated with the industrial world. Ingmar Egede, a well-traveled, multilingual Greenlander, tells Cone that anger “is the overriding emotion among Arctic people who are aware of the pollution.” It is ironic, he and others reflect, that the greatest threat to marine mammals comes from countries that scold Arctic people for hunting whales. “How can you say you worship whales,” writes Cone, paraphrasing the sentiments of many in the Arctic, “when you are the ones contaminating them?”

It is these voices that rise most powerfully from Silent Snow. In their anger and confusion, they deal a fatal blow to the myth of the unspoiled Arctic, and may rouse even the most complacent reader. “There may be only 155,000 Inuit in the entire world,” says Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, “but the Arctic is the barometer of the health of the planet, and if the Arctic is poisoned, so are we all.” a

Freelance writer Michelle Nijhuis lives in western Colorado.


Editor's Choice

Raising Less Corn, More Hell
By George Pyle
PublicAffairs, 229 pages, $25

The days of Thomas Jefferson's independent yeoman farmer are pretty much a thing of the past. A decades-long trend toward industrial agriculture—described by journalist George Pyle in his first book , Raising Less Corn, More Hell —has reduced the number of American farmers 93 percent, from more than 30 million in the 1930s to about 2 million in the 1990s. It has also worn out the soil, polluted the earth, and impoverished Third World nations. “Consumers and voters who, if they think about it at all, have bought the common, sincerely held, and utterly wrong assumptions that only tons of pesticides and fertilizers stand between us and famine; that food is no different from any other consumer product in its ability to be industrialized; and that decisions leading people to move off the farm and into the city—whether in Illinois, India, or Ivory Coast—are doing everyone a favor,” Pyle writes. He argues that the government, instead of granting billions of dollars in large subsidies that promote unhealthy land use and maximum production, should reward environmentally friendly practices like crop rotation and integrated pest management. Raising Less Corn, More Hell makes a convincing case for preserving a way of life that is on the verge of becoming extinct.

—Jesse Greenspan





Global Warming: Personal Solutions for a Healthy Planet
By Chris Spence
Palgrave MacMillan, 191 pages, $24.95

“Myth # 1: Global warming is just a theory. The experts have not made up their minds. Fact # 1: The experts are certain—global warming is happening, and we are causing it.” With that out of the way, journalist Chris Spence begins his overview of the many facets of climate change. His book, Global Warming: Personal Solutions for a Healthy Planet, uses simple language and avoids scientific jargon in outlining why climate change occurs. Spence also shows its effects on our weather, health, and wildlife, and describes what governments have (not) done to solve the problem. “Embarrassingly for the people of the United States, its government record has been worse than most,” he writes. “The Bush Administration and Congress have been negligent at best.” The book's most compelling chapter, “What Can I Do?,” calls on all citizens to vote for green politicians, buy gas-efficient cars, shop with reusable bags, own low-energy appliances, and properly insulate their homes. “What happens next depends almost entirely on us,” Spence writes. “Do nothing, continue just as we have been doing, and temperatures could leap by a massive 16 degrees Fahrenheit across parts of North America. The results will be a disaster of biblical proportions. But act now and, just like Indiana Jones or Spiderman, you can still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.”

—Jesse Greenspan



Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash
By Elizabeth Royte
Little, Brown and Company, 311 pages, $24.95

The United States consumes more stuff, per capita, than any other nation in the world, and therefore generates more stuff to bury, incinerate, and recycle—1.3 tons of it per person, per year, according to Columbia University. That fact, combined with a canoe trip down one “godforsaken stretch of water” near her Brooklyn home that's polluted with household refuse, raw sewage, and toxic waste, inspired journalist Elizabeth Royte to use her kitchen trash bin as a portal to the garbage underworld. Garbage Land is Royte's travelogue. Diving right into her topic, she paddles through those sewage-tainted waters; uses a kitchen scale to weigh the coffee grounds, wine bottles, and peanut butter jars her family tosses in the trash; rides in a garbage truck; and prowls around landfills, eventually coming to a sobering conclusion. With a literary wit that makes her taboo topic at once entertaining and alarming, Royte digs beneath the banana peels of American consumption and reveals the smelly truths of our disposable culture. “We can recycle and compost as much as we want,” she writes, “but if the total waste stream continues to grow—and it is growing, whether in places where recycling is on steroids, like Seattle, or in places where recycling is anemic, like the entire state of Mississippi—we'll never escape our own mess.”

—Rene Ebersole




© 2005 National Audubon Society

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