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Melting Arctic ice releasing toxic chemicals, study finds

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic

Climate change is boosting levels of banned pollutants such as PCBs and DDT in the atmosphere, Canadian, Chinese and Norwegian scientists have found.

 A "wide range" of persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, have been increasingly released into the Arctic atmosphere since the early 1990s, says the study led by Environment Canada scientist Jianmin Ma, "confirming that Arctic warming could undermine global efforts to reduce environmental and human exposure to these toxic chemicals."

The study, published Sunday in Nature Climate Change, links higher summer air temperatures and lower sea ice cover to increasing levels of POPs. That suggests that POPs previously trapped in water, snow and ice could be released back into the air as the ice melts, allowing them to travel long distances through the environment.

The production and use of POPs has been restricted and, in some cases, banned outright under agreements such as the 2001 United Nations Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The restrictions were put in place because POPs are linked to negative health and environmental effects. Exposure to PCBs, for example, can cause skin, lung and nervous system problems and a possible increased risk of cancer. POPs also persist in the environment for a long time after their release because they are resistant to degradation and tend to accumulate in the tissues of living organisms.

Because of the international restrictions, levels of POPs have been declining worldwide.

Scientists have long suspected that climate change could help release POPs trapped in ice, the water below sea ice, snow and soil. However, they never had the evidence to back up that suspicion.

Increasing levels of some POPs such as PCBs had previously been measured at air monitoring stations in Svalbard, Norway, and Alert, Canada, but other POPs seem to have been declining.

Ma and collaborators at Environment Canada, the Yantai Institute of Coast Zone Research in China and the Norwegian Institute for Air Research closely examined measurements of POPs taken in Svalbard and Alert between 1993 and 2009, along with surface air temperatures and sea ice cover in different parts of the Arctic. They also compared the data to computer simulations showing how climate change will affect levels of POPs in the atmosphere.

Effects more obvious since 2000

The effects of climate change were unmasked in the data by subtracting off the effect of declining production and use of POPs. The link between higher summer air temperatures, lower sea ice cover and higher POP concentrations in the air became more evident in the past decade as the sea ice melted more quickly, the study said.

In the central Canadian Archipelago of the western Arctic, the increase in a POP called hexachlorobenzene seemed particularly sensitive to decreases in sea ice compared to other areas. The researchers noted that in the 1990s, hexachlorobenzene concentrations in the water there were found to be highest compared with other areas.

The researchers suggested that based on the study, climate change will alter the ways in which organisms can be exposed to POPs, and consequently the ways in which human health can be affected.

Jordi Dachs, a scientist at the Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research in Barcelona said the results mean that POPs could continue to negatively impact the environment and human health far longer than previously believed.

In an analysis accompanying Ma's article, Dachs noted that the study focused on only a few POPs.

"But there are thousands ... that behave in similar ways in the environment," he wrote. "If the mobility of these compounds is increased by climate change, it could have significant implications for ecosystems and human health."

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.