The Arctic is the chemical sink of the globe, says WWF

Washington, DC - The Arctic and its wildlife are increasingly contaminated with chemicals and pollutants that were never produced or used in that region, warns World Wildlife Fund in a new report.

The report - The Tip of the Iceberg: Chemical Contamination in the Arctic - shows that air, river and ocean currents, drifting sea ice and migrating wildlife species carry industrial and agricultural chemicals from distant sites of production and use to the polar environment. Once pollutants reach the Arctic, polar ice can trap contaminants that are gradually released into the environment during melting periods, even years later. As a result, the Arctic is becoming the chemical sink of the globe, according to WWF.

"Not only is chemical contamination increasing in the Arctic, but also modern chemicals are now appearing in many arctic species alongside older chemicals, some of them banned for over 20 years," said Brettania Walker, Toxics Officer at WWF's Arctic Programme. "This alarming trend will continue if the current chemical regulation does not improve. REACH, the new EU chemical legislation, provides an opportunity to set a new global standard, putting chemical production and use on a safe and sustainable path."

WWF's report points out that recent studies of polar bears in the Norwegian or Canadian Arctic indicate that exposure to older chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and organochlorine pesticides (OCs), is already at levels where effects are seen in their hormone, immune, and reproductive systems. Many of the newer chemicals now reaching the Arctic are capable of similar effects, and mixtures of both older and current-use chemicals could lead to even more harmful combined effects.

Many Arctic animals, such as polar bears, seals, and whales, have thick layers of body fat that helps them keep warm and gives them sufficient energy throughout the year. But the fat also acts as a magnet for storing chemicals, leading to the build up of very high chemical levels.

The report shows that chlorinated paraffins - un-restricted chemicals used in paints, sealants, adhesives, leather, and rubber processing - have been detected in grey and ringed seals from Norway, beluga whales, walruses as well as fish, birds, and ocean sediments from the United Kingdom. Brominated flame-retardants and fluorinated chemicals, many of which are inadequately regulated, have already contaminated polar bears, whales, Arctic foxes, seals, porpoises, and birds from Greenland, Norway, Canada and Sweden. If current trends and inadequate regulation continue, levels of brominated flame-retardants could reach similar levels as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, phased out in the 1970s) within the next 10 to 20 years.

"Arctic contamination has serious implications not just for the health of arctic animals but also for arctic indigenous peoples who rely on a traditional marine diet," added Brettania Walker. "Strong chemical regulation is needed to prevent hazardous chemicals from reaching the Arctic in the first place."

WWF believes the European Union's proposed REACH chemical legislation must be strengthened to require identification and phase-out of the most hazardous chemicals. REACH will then have the potential to drastically reduce harmful contamination both in the Arctic and globally. Protecting environmental, wildlife, and human health would also benefit the industry, opening new markets for safer products, and ensuring easier introduction of new chemicals onto the market, decreased liability lawsuits, and more public trust.