High concentrations of pollutants detected in Bering Sea animals | Polarjournal
Bowhead whales are among the animals in the study that were found to be contaminated with persistent organic compounds. Photo: Heiner Kubny

Unlike pollution with plastics or exhaust gases, there is less public awareness of the contamination of the environment with chemicals. A new study from Alaska is now helping to bring the worryingly high concentrations of pollutants more into focus. The team of researchers and native Yup’ik from St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea have detected concentrations of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), some of them extremely high, in the tissues of various seal species, bowhead whales and reindeer – animals on which the Yup’ik subsist – emitted thousands of kilometers away.

St. Lawrence Island is far from densely populated industrial regions west of Alaska and south of the Bering Strait. And yet the marine mammals and reindeer hunted by the Yup’ik are contaminated with pollutants in the region, sometimes at high levels, according to the new study by Middlebury College, Vermont, and the Alaska Community Action on Toxics initiative. 

Local hunters donated samples for the study, which was published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research. The researchers, including islanders themselves, found varying levels of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in seals, bowhead whales and reindeer.

Walrus meat hung to dry, a regular part of the diet among residents of Gambell, St. Lawrence Island. Walruses are also contaminated with pollutants. Photo: Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development; Division of Community and Regional Affairs’ Community Photo Library.

PBDEs are used in countless products as flame retardants. The range of applications for PFAS compounds is even wider: they can be found, for example, in waterproof and breathable clothing, in non-stick coatings or in waterproof, long-lasting cosmetics. PFASs have been attributed with health effects such as thyroid disorders, fetal development disorders, neurodevelopmental disorders, and cancer. PBDEs have not been proven with certainty to be carcinogenic. However, they can also cause hormone disruption and affect the physical and mental development of young children.

In the meantime, the use of many compounds has been banned (depending on the country). However, since substances of both chemical classes do not degrade in the environment, even those that were banned decades ago can still be detected in water, soil and also in animals. They are therefore also referred to as ” forever chemicals”.

Muktuk is the traditional food of the indigenous people in the Arctic and consists of whale skin and the underlying fat layer, where the concentration of pollutants is usually particularly high. Photo: Dr. Michael Wenger

The current investigation on St. Lawrence Island highlights how contaminants persist for decades, are transported to the most remote regions, and impact regional populations. 

“We are being contaminated against our will,” Vi Waghiyi, a native of the island village of Savoonga and co-author of the study, tells Alaska Public Media. Still, people should continue their traditional diet, continues Waghiyi, who is program director for environmental health and justice at the Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) organization. “Our people still feel the benefits outweigh the risks. It is our identity. We’re intricately tied to our lands and waters and wildlife that have sustained our people since time immemorial.”

While some of the study results are similar to those of previous investigations in the Arctic, the team also made new discoveries. Apparently, they were able to detect PFAS compounds in the blubber and muscle of bowhead whales for the first time. In addition, they found that seals had the highest PBDE concentrations of all the species studied.

Seals like this bearded seal are particularly contaminated with pollutants, according to the study. Photo: Heiner Kubny

The current study is the latest in a research program ACAT is conducting with its partners. The research program is distinguished by its community focus and reliance on local leadership and knowledge, says Waghiyi, who was appointed last year to a White House Advisory Council on Environmental Justice. “It’s one of the few where we’re not just research subjects,” she says.

The sources of the pollutants on St. Lawrence Island are both remote and local, according to Sam Byrne, assistant professor of biological and global health at Middlebury College, Vermont, and lead author of the study. It is even possible to distinguish between the two, he said. 

Long-closed military installations and landfills on the island are also contributing contaminants, such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which were found near the Northeast Cape and are not normally transported far. Contamination from local sources is also being investigated as part of the research program, but was not part of this study. 

St. Lawrence Island is located between the east coast of Russia and the west coast of Alaska south of the Bering Strait. Map: GoogleEarth

However, ACAT sees other problems brought on by climate change: melting sea and glacier ice, thawing permafrost, and the spread of microplastics previously trapped in the ice, according to Waghiyi and Pam Miller, executive director of ACAT and also a co-author of the study.

“The convergence of climate, chemicals and plastics has not yet been fully recognized by the scientific community or climate justice activists,” Miller said.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

Link to the study: Byrne, S., Seguinot-Medina, S., Waghiyi, V. et al. PFAS and PBDEs in traditional subsistence foods from Sivuqaq, Alaska. Environ Sci Pollut Res (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-022-20757-2 

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