The polyfluoroalkly substances (PFAS) known from media as “‘forever chemicals” have now reached nearly all regions of the globe, just like microplastics. A study now shows that the population in the East Greenlandic community of Ittoqqotoormiit, which is located far from any industrial region, is also impacted, at an alarming rate.
More than 90 percent of the approximately 350 residents have levels of PFAS in their blood that are far above the limits set by European authorities. Results of the study show that about 86 percent are even at the highest category. According to the research group, this means that these residents are exposed to a massive risk of severe damage to the immune system. In addition, there is a increased risk of developing cardiovascular problems or cancer and of having a reduced reproductive potential.
Overall, the community ranks as the lone leader in direct comparisons with other countries in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia, with an average level of more than 164 ng PFAS per milliliter of blood. The study appeared in the new issue of the journal The Lancet Planetary Health.
The study, led by Professor Christian Sonne of Denmark’s Aarhus University, investigated whether and how long-term intake of PFAS from the consumption of Arctic marine mammals such as polar bears and seals manifests itself in the population. In addition, the team wanted to investigate how the risk of adverse health effects compares globally. To this end, the authors interviewed various population groups in Ittoqqotoormiit who partly or wholly rely on hunting for their subsistence. In addition, blood samples were taken and the concentrations of PFAS in the blood serum were analyzed and compared with the literature.
The results of the comparisons surprised the team of authors, as it showed that the majority of the people living in the East Greenland settlement were exposed to levels that are considered to be seriously harmful to health. The level of 4.4 ng PFAS that may be ingested per week, set as tolerable by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), was exceeded between 7 and 130 times. Further comparisons showed that, in addition to East Greenland, residents of the rest of the country, the Faroe Islands and Denmark also had greatly elevated levels, albeit 5 to 6 times lower than the East Greenland average. According to the authors, however, this may result in reduced immune responses to vaccinations, for example, or make individuals more susceptible to diseases and infections.
On the one hand, the results of the study are surprising, as Ittoqqotoormiit is located far away from any industrial sites. But previous studies have shown that such “forever chemicals” enter the Arctic through a variety of pathways and accumulate in marine mammals. In turn, these are an essential part of the local population’s diet.
Until now, however, the effects on the population had not been studied. Environmental chemist and deputy head of department Dr. Hanna Joerss from the Helmholtz Center Hereon, who was not part of the study, explains, “The article is fascinating in that the specific PFAS concentrations in marine mammals are not only associated with those in the blood of humans, but that the 4 EFSA PFAS are also related to the tolerable weekly intake levels and thus a risk assessment can be performed. The results and the global comparison illustrate the enormous high exposure of the group studied in Greenland.”
And her colleague Dr. Ralf Ebinghaus adds, “The combination of methods and the great illustration in graphs and maps allow the article, I believe, to highlight at the political (and societal) level why international action is needed on PFAS.”
An initial important step was taken in February of this year by launching the “Berlin Declaration”. It lists a total of ten elements that can be taken immediately by the various parties to reduce the danger posed by PFAS and other chemical substances in the Arctic. A clear tenor of the declaration is: Take action now! And the results of the study by Professor Sonne and his team underline this call.
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
Study link: Sonne et al (2023) Lancet Planet Health 7 Assessment of exposure to perfluorinated industrial substances and risk of immune suppression in Greenland and its global context: a mixed-methods study; doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(23)00106-7
Link to the information page about PFAS and the Berlin Declaration
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