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New research on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the Arctic has endorsed previous findings of worrying levels of hazardous substances in animals and human beings (AMAP 2004).

Most of these substances come from sources far outside the Arctic. POPs are chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods of time and are spread by air streams and ocean currents over wide areas. Some compounds may last even longer in the cold and dark Arctic environment than they would in temperate climates.

POPs accumulate in the fatty tissue of living organisms, and are toxic to humans and wildlife (Box 1). Animals such as polar bears, seals and seabirds, are at the top of the Arctic food chain, and therefore accumulate the highest concentrations of pollutants. Female mammals excrete some types of POPs via placental transfer to the foetus and in breast milk. Due to their lifestyle and diet, indigenous peoples in parts of the Arctic are among the most exposed to POPs in the world.

Brominated flame retardants (such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs) are one of the types of substances whose levels are increasing (AMAP 2004a). This term covers a group of chemicals used in products such as fabrics, TV sets, computers and other equipment, to make them less flammable. They may also be classified as POPs in the future (AMAP 2004).

The discovery and analysis of these flame retardants in the environment is relatively new. Data from Arctic Canada show that levels of brominated flame retardants in male ringed seals from Holman, aged 0-15 years, increased nine-fold in the period 1981 to 2000. Further data from Baffin Island (also Arctic Canada) show that levels of the most predominant brominated flame retardant (BDE47) increased 6.5 times in beluga whales in the period 1982 to 1997 (AMAP 2004). Some studies have shown that the chemicals could be toxic to the immune system and could affect neurobehavioural development (AMAP 2004).

In July 2004 Norway passed a ban on the use and sale of the two most dangerous brominated flame retardants (penta- and octa-bromodiphenyl ether). The European Union (EU) passed a similar ban which became effective August 2004 (EU 2003). Another type, deca-BDE, is at present being discussed in the EU's programme for risk assessment. A Norwegian and Swedish ban is under consideration (Hardeng 2004).

Box 1: Stockholm Convention on POPs enters into force

The 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) became legally binding on 17 May 2004. The treaty bans or severely restricts 12 extremely harmful chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and several pesticides, with provisions for adding further chemicals in the future.

For decades these highly toxic chemicals have affected people and wildlife by inducing cancer, damaging nervous, reproductive and immune systems, and causing birth defects.

By committing governments to eliminating the production, use and environmental release of these chemicals, the Stockholm Convention will greatly benefit human health and the environment. The convention will also strengthen the overall scope and effectiveness of international environmental law. In addition, the treaty has provisions for cleaning up the growing accumulation of unwanted stockpiles of pesticides and toxic chemicals.

Source: POPs Secretariat 2004

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