POINTS OF VIEW:
Michael Kwan, Toxicologist:
The mercury levels in the arctic, and the environment
in general, is increasing and so it is very important for us to closely monitor
anything that people eat. Fish, marine mammals, caribou, anything that’s
consumed by the local Inuits.
Devra Davis, University
of Pittsburgh Cancer Center:
Polar bears are showing up with levels in their fat of certain
toxic pollutants that would qualify them for burial in a
hazardous waste site. Now, those polar bears don't work in
factories, but they're at the top of the
food chain — full of a lot of hazardous material. This
is clearly a cause for concern.
The women who eat these animals themselves, then, are absorbing
these industrial pollutants that were originally used in
the United States, Central America, Mexico and China. And,
as they travel into the bodies of these women, they're deposited
in fat, and when they have babies, the fat releases right
into the breast milk. The Inuit women have no choice. They
have to feed their babies. They don't have access to formula.
And as a result the breast milk that they are giving their
babies, a source of life and sustenance, is contaminated
with some of the worse pollution we have ever see on this
Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Inuit Circumpolar Conference:
Seal hunting is absolutely important in order to nourish
us and to give us the food that we require. But the process
of the hunt is very powerful and that is something that most
people have not come to understand. The hunt itself and the
process of it teaches us such wisdom—to be able to go out
there and build character for our children. We have done
so for millennia.
It was really shocking when the science started to come
in — the food that has nourished us for millennia,
spiritually, emotionally and physically was now poisoning
us and it was not of our doing.
I think the world has to care about what’s happening
up here in the Arctic because we have become the early warning
system. Whatever happens to the planet happens first here
in the Arctic and I think that’s what the world has
The arctic is an isolated and vulnerable world of extremes. It
is a place dominated by the rhythms of nature and the seasonal
patterns of migration. It's a place of deep fiords teeming with
life — and remote fishing villages governed by the endless
cycle of strong tidal currents.
Iqaluit is a remote village in Northeastern Canada about 90 miles
south of the Arctic Circle. Most of the 5,000 people who live here
are Inuit, a nomadic people that migrated across a land bridge
from Asia more than four thousand years ago. Though this is a community
that has clearly entered the 21st century, rush hour traffic has
never really been an issue — in fact Iqaluit has less than
ten miles of roads.
The only way in or out of town is by plane or boat. A long arm
of the North Atlantic and treeless green carpets of tundra covered
with the delicate flowers of summer surround Iqaluit. However,
the image that most people have of the polar region — of
a pristine unspoiled wilderness — is far from accurate.
The Arctic, which has very few sources of industrial pollution,
is turning into a toxic sink. In many ways, this is the perfect
place to investigate the future health of our planet — a
future conditional on how we cope with the spread of toxic pollution.
The image that most people have of the polar region — of
a pristine unspoiled wilderness — is far from accurate.
Five hundred miles south of Iqaluit is a small settlement of only
600 people. It's the home of the region's first trace metal analytical
laboratory. This is where biologists, using highly sophisticated
instruments, study nearly 1,000 animal specimens each year. Incredibly,
they show rising levels of the world's most hazardous chemicals — DDT,
PCBs, dioxins, and mercury.
In a phenomenon scientists call the grasshopper effect, toxic
pollutants released thousands of miles to the south evaporate in
the warm climate. They then ride the winds until they reach the
cold air of the Arctic, where they eventually fall to the earth.
It doesn't take long for the Caribou to feed upon the tainted
moss and shrubs of the tundra. And in the sea, fish feed upon toxic
plankton, which are then eaten by seals and polar bears. And polar
bears are not the only ones at the top of the food chain.
Barney Kovic and his 13-year-old nephew Virgil are hunting seal.
They will be on the water for about twelve hours. The sea ice is
not completely broken up so the boat must maneuver slowly through
Barney and Virgil are searching for ringed seals, one of the most
abundant sea mammals in the polar region. Here in the arctic, hunting
is far more than a sport. It's a necessity because the meat provides
as much as 65 percent of the protein in the Inuit diet and most
families simply can't afford the high cost of store-bought food.
The Inuit — who have contributed
almost nothing to the contamination of their land — remain
It was only fifty years ago that the Inuit followed a more nomadic
existence. Life was never easy for those who braved the harsh polar
climate. The Inuits never-ending pursuit of food was a matter of
survival. And for thousands of years, the sea was the Inuit's greatest
source of sustenance. Seal hunting was an essential part of their
culture. The hunt was also a learning experience — a skill
handed down from generation to generation.
Barney and Virgil have been out for almost seven hours. They finally
spot a ringed seal. The first shot misses. The seal dives but Barney
knows it can only stay underwater for a few minutes before coming
up for air. He anticipates where the seal will rise and hopes that
it's within range. When the seal appears, Barney signals for the
boat to maneuver closer. This time he does not miss — his
patience is finally rewarded.
This one seal will feed Barney's extended family for a week. But
recent studies show that Inuits have some of the world's highest
levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies. The discovery of toxic
pollutants in the food supply has put 155,000 Inuit's on the brink
of a public health disaster.
For now, the Inuit — who have contributed almost nothing
to the contamination of their land — remain unintentional
victims. Their only hope is that communities to the south find
ways to halt the spread of toxic pollution.