Global Contaminants

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Pacific Walrus Bering Sea USFWS
Walrus on Bering Sea ice. Photo by USFWS

The Arctic is a hemispheric sink for toxic chemicals. Certain contaminants originating from distant agricultural and industrial operations travel on air and ocean currents to the Arctic and stay there. These toxic chemicals, known as persistent organic pollutants – or POPs – persist in the Arctic environment, threatening the integrity of northern ecosystems and posing serious human health risks.

Since persistent organic pollutants do not respect political boundaries, Alaska Community Action on Toxics must work on the international level to reduce and eliminate the long-range global transport of these toxic chemicals to the Arctic.

ACAT also works with scientists to understand how global climate change is affecting contamination in the Arctic as sea ice retreats (exposing more ocean surface to take up contaminants) and permafrost and glaciers melt (releasing locked up contaminants which then re-enter the environment).

Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in the Arctic

Persistent organic pollutants include “legacy” chemicals such as PCBs and DDT, but also newer contaminants such as brominated flame retardants and perfluorinated chemicals (used in making Teflon). These chemicals ride on wind and currents to the Arctic over long distances from sources in North and Central America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. These contaminants build up in fish, wildlife, and people.

Arctic Indigenous peoples who rely on traditional subsistence foods harvested from the land and sea are particularly vulnerable to exposure to POPs. Arctic Indigenous peoples have levels of POPs contamination in blood and breast milk that are among the highest of any population on earth, even though most of these chemicals are not manufactured in the Arctic. Exposure to POPs can lead to serious health effects including certain cancers, birth defects, and damage to the nervous, reproductive and immune systems.

Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)

Since 1997, Alaska Community Action on Toxics has worked to ensure the negotiation and ratification of a strong, protective treaty to eliminate POPs, based on the precautionary principle. We support the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, a legally-binding United Nations global treaty to protect human health and the environment by eliminating the world’s most toxic and persistent chemicals.

We worked to ensure that the Stockholm Convention’s Preamble acknowledge that Arctic ecosystems and Indigenous communities are particularly at risk because of the biomagnification of POPs and that contamination of their traditional foods is a public health issue.  Now, we work to make certain that participating nations uphold their commitment to the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Alaska Community Action on Toxics is a participating organization in the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN), a network of over 700 public health and environmental organizations from more than 80 countries who support a common platform for the elimination of POPs.