Many dangerous chemicals from chemical manufacturing facilities and industrial agriculture operations around the world end up in the Arctic and stay there. Originating in Asia and southern latitudes, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) hitchhike on wind and ocean currents and accumulate in the fish, wildlife and people who call the far north home. Among those who bear a disproportionate burden of global contaminants are Arctic Indigenous peoples who depend on berries, greens, fish and marine mammals for subsistence. In addition to being exposed to pollutants from distant sources, the people of Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island are also exposed to contamination from abandoned military sites.
Author Elizabeth Grossman highlights the ongoing struggle for environmental health and justice of the St. Lawrence Island Yupik people in her award-winning book Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health and the Promise of Green Chemistry. With Chasing Molecules, Grossman reveals that we can do better, that we can make materials that we have come to rely on with chemicals that have been tested to be safe and are in fact “benign by design.” In a radical departure from how synthetic chemistry has been practiced, Grossman suggests that green chemistry should be used to create new materials for use in everything from sippy cups to carpets.
CHE-Alaska hosted a discussion with author Elizabeth Grossman to explore the local and global sources of contamination in Alaska and how the promise of green chemistry could help stem the tide of persistent chemicals that are polluting the Arctic.