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Canada: Arctic Pollution Linked to Industrial Plants and Incinerators

by Danielle KnightInter Press Service
October 3rd, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Toxic pollution that has mysteriously entered Canada's pristine Arctic region has now been linked to air emissions from specific municipal waste incinerators, cement kilns and industrial plants in the United States, Canada and Mexico, according to a new study released Tuesday.

Although there are few pollution sources in Nunavut, the region of Arctic Canada studied, it is on the receiving end of toxic pollutants known as dioxin that have been transported over long distances by the prevailing air currents, says the report by the Center for Biology of Natural Systems of Queens College in New York.

''Decision makers now have the ability to determine where dioxin is coming from and where it is going,'' says Greg Block with the North American Commission for Environmental Co-operation, a Montreal-based inter-governmental organisation set up under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

''This will be very helpful in prioritising cost-effective efforts to reduce exposure,'' he says.

Block's organisation commissioned the report.

Dioxin are one of a dozen types of chemicals known as Persistent Organic Pollutants or POPs, which accumulate in the fat of animals.

Dioxin, proven to cause cancer, immune deficiency and harmful reproductive and developmental effects, are unintentionally produced as by-products of incineration and industrial processes.

According to scientists, POPs are capable of being transported long distances through the environment and end up settling in colder regions because of weather patterns.

The study released Tuesday was a response to numerous scientific reports that revealed high amounts of dioxin in the food chain in the polar regions and blood supply of indigenous people living in the Arctic, known as the Inuit.

In Nunavut, for example, even thought there are no significant sources of dioxin within 500 kilometres, dioxin concentrations in Inuit mothers breast milk are twice the levels observed in southern Quebec.

Now for the first time, this study reveals where exactly the dioxin originated. The authors of the study hope this will aid international and regional efforts to reduce dioxin at the source so that it never ends up in the food chain.

''The only possible way of dealing with the issue is going to the source and preventing or reducing the amount of dioxin that comes out of that source,'' says Barry Commoner, a scientist at Queens College who headed the research study.

Using mathematical and meteorological models, the study analyses 1996-1997 data obtained by Canadian, Mexican and US environmental regulatory agencies.

The model estimated the amount of dioxin emitted by each source in the three countries at its geographical location. Using weather and climate data, the model then predicted which dioxin would reach various locations in Nunavut.

Overall the greatest contribution, about 70 to 82 percent, of dioxin in Nunavut is coming from US sources.

About two-thirds of the total dioxin emission is caused by municipal waste incinerators, medical waste incinerators, cement kilns burning hazardous waste and backyard trash burning. Iron sintering, and copper and aluminums melting, are other major sources of dioxin, according to the report.

While the contamination problem can seem overwhelming, the realistic possibility of adequately stopping the pollution at specific sources is strengthened by the study's finding that most of the airborne dioxin deposited in Nunavut originates from an extremely small number of individual sources.

Six of the total North American sources identified as emitting the most dioxin, for example, are located in the industrialised eastern half of the United States. These include three municipal waste incinerators, two iron sintering plants and one copper smelter.

Canadian sources contribute between 11 and 25 percent of dioxin reaching Nunavut, while Mexican sources contribute about five to 11 percent. The largest amount of dioxin emitted by a single Canadian source was a municipal waste incinerator in Quebec.

No single Mexican source is ranked in the top 35 percent of sites listed.

Since the model used in the study relies on data from 1996 and 1997, the current amount of dioxin coming from the reported sources are likely to be much different because of recent pollution regulations, says Block.

''The snapshot could look different today since 1997 air quality regulations have come into place,'' he says.

Michael McCally, an expert on dioxin who teaches at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine called the report ''tremendously significant''.

''We have known for a long time that native communities living in the Arctic circle thousands of miles from industry had high levels of dioxin in their blood and tissue samples and now we have specified where the dioxin is actually coming from,'' he told IPS in a phone interview.

Indigenous leaders are praising the researchers for finally pinpointing the exact location of pollution sources that they said have contaminated their communities for decades.

''For us, this particular study is very important,'' says Sheila Watt Cloutier, an Inuit leader in Canada.

Tens of thousands of Inuit people living in Nunavut territory depend on Caribou for food. Past studies have found that Caribou herds in the region are contaminated by dioxin.

''Human exposure to dioxin is almost entirely (98 percent) through animal foods, especially those that are rich in fat,'' according to the report released today.

In Washington on Tuesday afternoon, indigenous leaders throughout North America held a press conference in front of the US State Department. They called for lawmakers to take tougher national and international action on eliminating Persistent Organic Pollutants at the source.

''From the Great Lake tribes to the Native villages of Alaska, dioxin , DDT, PCB and other chemicals are in the bodies of our traditional food web - from the fish we eat - to the bodies of our people,'' says Tom Goldtooth, dire ctor of the Indigenous Environmental Network, an advocacy group based in the state of Minnesota.

In December in Johannesburg, South Africa, nations will begin the fin al negotiating session of an international treaty that seeks to eliminate POPs. Environmentalists and indigenous groups alike have accused the United States of trying to weaken the treaty.

Shawn Larson, who works with Alaska Community Action on Toxics, a Native American advocacy group, says her village is very concerned about the health effects - like cancer, diabetes and learning disabilities that she says POPs are causing.

''I have come here on behalf of my people to ask that the United States government owns up to its responsibility to protect us as a people,'' she told reporters on Tuesday.

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