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Decades-long monitoring shows reduced levels of regulated contaminants in Arctic people’s bodies

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Decades-long monitoring shows reduced levels of regulated contaminants in Arctic people’s bodies

May 29, 2024 | 9:00 am ET
By Yereth Rosen
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Decades-long monitoring shows reduced levels of regulated contaminants in Arctic people’s bodies
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Trees are reflected in the waters of Lake Spenard on the evening of May 16. Lake Spenard and Lake Hood, to which it is attached, showed high levels of PFAS contamination in an Alaska Community Action on Toxics study published in 2023. While levels of regulated contaminants appear to be declining around the Arctic, levels of unregulated PFAS contaminants are on the rise in some areas, an Arctic Council study says. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)n)

Around the far north, including in Alaska, levels of certain contaminants found in people’s bodies have declined over the past three decades, likely showing the positive effect of regulation, according to a newly released study from an Arctic Council research group.

The blood and breast milk of people in various Arctic regions shows declining levels of regulated pollutants and growing levels of unregulated ones.

Within the blood and breast milk of people in various Arctic regions, levels of a class of chemicals used in electrical equipment and industrial lubricants, and certain pesticides fell steadily from about 1990 to the early 2020s, said the report from the council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, or AMAP.

However, in several areas, blood and breast milk showed increasing levels over time of unregulated per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are known as PFAS, the study showed.

PFAS compounds, which number in the thousands, are known as “forever chemicals” because of their resistance to breaking down. Commonly used since the 1950s, they have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, developmental delays and other ill health effects, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Those rising levels of contaminants that fall outside of existing international regulations are concerning, the study said. “More focus is needed on biomonitoring the new emerging contaminants of concern in the Arctic and their implications on human health,” the study said.

Contaminants like polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that were widely used in the past but have been banned or phased out by international treaty are of special concern in the Arctic. Those persistent organic pollutants, or POPS, were carried for decades to high latitudes by atmospheric and ocean currents, and concentrations became alarmingly high in the Arctic marine environment from which Indigenous people harvest their food. Release of POPs into the Arctic environment is also exacerbated by climate change, which is more acute in the far north, as warmer temperatures and increased rainfall work to mobilize the contaminants, the study noted.

The eight-nation Arctic Council, when it formed in the 1990s, considered POPS one of the organization’s top priorities. The Arctic Council was an important contributor to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

The AMAP study shows “the importance of international elimination of these persistent organic pollutants, because they don’t respect political boundaries,” said Pam Miller, executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

In recent years, the Stockholm Convention has added certain types of PFAS compounds to its list of chemicals to be eliminated. 

Some Arctic nations have taken steps beyond those in the Stockholm Convention to reduce human exposure to PFAS compounds, and the AMAP study suggests that those steps have had positive results. In Finland, for example, where firefighting foam was considered the main source of environmental contamination, use of foams containing a certain class of PFAS compounds was prohibited in 2011. Among Finnish children, levels of PFAS decreased from2006 to 2015, the AMAP study said.

There is no national-level ban on PFAS-containing firefighting foams in the United States, but a bill recently passed by the Alaska Legislature would institute such a ban in the state. That bill, Senate Bill 67, mandates an end to the use of such foams by Jan. 1, 2025, though there are exceptions, with a phase-in allowed for oil and gas facilities.

If signed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, the bill would put Alaska among several U.S. states that have halted or are phasing out use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams. Some states have banned PFAS materials from other products, such as cookware and food packaging.

The Alaska bill is significant, Miller said, but Alaska should follow other states in taking a more comprehensive approach to PFAS contamination. “There are so many other categories of products that need to be addressed,” she said.

Alaska data from the AMAP study, which focuses on Yup’ik women, does not include PFAS information. The Alaska data is sparser than that for other regions covered in the study.

Not included is any information about contamination in Russia. The Arctic Council has largely ceased work with Russia since that nation’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Correction: The spelling of polychlorinated biphenyls has been corrected.