Cancer-causing dioxins polluting Canada’s Arctic region have been linked for the first time to specific incinerators and smelters thousands of miles south in the United States, Canada and Mexico, a study released on Tuesday said.
The authors said a number of major sources of dioxin emissions have been restricted since the research undertaken in Nunavut territory for the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (NACEC) from July 1, 1996, to June 30, 1997.
But Greg Block of the Montreal-based organization said the study “demonstrates that we should revise our concept of neighbors. In a very real sense, because of the long-range atmospheric transport of substances like dioxins, the Inuit people of the far north are our neighbors.
“They receive pollutants, a problem not of their making, that can impact on their very way of life and culture.”
Pollutants in Meat, Breast Milk
Dioxins, which are produced by chemical processes such as metal refining, the chlorinated bleaching of pulp and paper and burning certain materials, have been linked in other studies to cancer, birth defects and neurological, reproductive and immune system damage in people and animals.
Researchers for NACEC, a group established under the North American Free Trade Agreement, were not required to study the health effects on humans and wildlife.
However, a summary of the study headed by scientist Barry Commoner of Queens College, City University of New York, stated that “for years, dioxins have been detected in the Arctic diet of fish, seal and caribou meat and recently, in Inuit mothers’ breast milk. The sources of dioxins clearly migrate from somewhere else, but where they come from has not been known until now.”
Diet Change Not an Option
Sheila Watt-Cloutier, president of the non-profit Inuit Circumpolar Conference Canada group, said at the news conference that some have suggested the Inuit change their diets to avoid exposure.
“But for us in the Arctic as a people who are traditionally tied to the land, this really is not an option,” she said. “We have no alternative to traditional food...the environment is our supermarket and we cannot and will not abandon the land.”
Researchers used the remote Nunavut territory in Arctic Canada, which has few local sources of dioxins, to demonstrate how pollutants travel to areas far away from the source of emissions. Eight locations were identified as receptors of dioxins in the territory covering the eastern Arctic.
“People tend to forget that dioxin that moves from the south somewhere to Nunavut is being deposited all the way en route and the weather patterns from every source in the Midwest can very well be carried into the desert states,” Commoner told reporters “The consequence is that this process is really disseminating dioxin and other pollutants pretty uniformly over the entire globe from Mexico on up to the Arctic Circle.”
U.S., Mexico to Blame
Commoner and his team used an adaptation of a computer model developed by the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Called the Hybrid Single-Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory (Hysplit-4), it tracked “puffs” of dioxins in the air released at locations in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Of the 23 classes of dioxin sources identified in the study, only six accounted for 90 percent of all dioxin emissions in North America, the report’s summary stated. Those were municipal solid waste incinerators, backyard trash burning, cement kilns burning hazardous waste, medical waste incinerators, secondary copper smelters and iron sintering plants.
The report said of 44,000 emission sources identified in North America as causing pollution in Nunavut, the United States accounted for 62 percent, Mexico accounted for 30 percent and Canada for 8 percent. Dioxin sources within Nunavut accounted for less than 0.02 percent of the total.
The study said an estimated two to 20 percent of dioxin pollution in Nunavut areas originated outside North America, mainly in Japan, France, Belgium and Britain.