Credit: IISD/ENB Kiara Worth

On the heels of persistent pollutants

Persistent organic pollutants have been on the radar of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) for a long time.

The Working Group’s first comprehensive pollution assessment provided input for the negotiations of a global treaty that would regulate emissions of these toxic chemicals. While global regulations showed their effects, another threat was lurking and AMAP early on made the connection between a warming climate and contaminants. Today the evidence is increasing: climate change could provide pollutants with new pathways into the Arctic.

A soapstone carving of a mother cradling her new-born child stood in front of John Buccini. Always in his sight as he chaired the challenging negotiations that would decide on whether the delegates could agree on a treaty that banned the use, or at least reduced, the so-called “dirty dozen” – twelve potent chemicals, known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), threatening the health of humans and ecosystems.

The carving had been a gift from Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit woman from Nunavik and then Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). It was her sign of appreciation to the leaders of the negotiations of what would become the Stockholm Convention, an international environmental treaty on POPs. The carving was also a constant reminder of what was at stake: the health of mothers and their children – especially in the Arctic.

POPs are toxic chemicals that may adversely affect human health and wildlife across the globe. Wind and water carry the chemicals over long distances, away from the original source towards people and wildlife in remote regions. The molecules show persistence for a long time and many of them are fat-soluble, thus accumulating in the fatty tissues of animals and eventually via their diet in humans, where they can affect hormone and reproductive systems, cause cancers, or damage the nervous system.

Arctic Indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable as the chemicals build up in their traditional foods such as seal and whale blubber – a chemical burden that a mother shares with their infant through breastfeeding. “[A] poisoned Inuk child, a poisoned Arctic, and a poisoned planet are all one and the same,” Sheila Watt-Cloutier emphasized at the first negotiation session in Montreal in June 1998.

“[A] poisoned Inuk child, a poisoned Arctic, and a poisoned planet are all one and the same.” Sheila Watt-Cloutier

The term POPs covers a wide range of substances. There are industrial chemicals whose toxic character is unintentional, others are industrial by-products, and some substances were designed to be toxic, such as pesticides. “The major source of most persistent organic chemicals to the Arctic today is the residue of widespread contamination of the global environment, the sum of past uses,” states the 1997 Arctic Pollution Issues: A State of the Arctic Environment Report. This nearly 200-page condensed summary, which included a section on POPs, was published by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP). A year later its scientific report on the topic followed with a full chapter on POPs.

At the time, the publications represented the most comprehensive assessments of pollution threats to the Arctic and they were released with an impeccable timing right at the onset of the negotiations of the Stockholm Convention. Aware of the upcoming discussions, AMAP urged the Arctic States to strongly support the work of the negotiating that was to prepare an international, legally binding global agreement on controls for twelve specified POPs.

It was the first time that AMAP was able to act as a knowledge broker, bridging the two worlds of science and policy making. In its 1997 summary report, AMAP had outlined “a cast of characters” of some of the most worrisome chemicals and the Working Group provided Arctic States with recommendations on which POPs should be nominated for the Stockholm Convention and be regulated internationally.

“AMAP has successfully struck a balance between independent scientific assessment work and policy. It functions as a boundary organization as we call it in academia. While the technical reports follow scientific peer-reviewed standards, the political recommendations following the reports are derived in a collaborative effort with policy makers and other key stakeholders. Without losing its scientific credibility and legitimacy the science is translated into something that’s easier to understand, something that can inform negotiations such as for the Stockholm Convention,” says Eirik Hovland Steindal, research scientist at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research.Together with a multidisciplinary team of colleagues from the research institutes Akvaplan-niva and CICERO and funded by the Fram Centre in Tromsø, Norway, Steindal has documented the increasing role and relevance of AMAP and Arctic science in international policy making.

In May 2001, almost three years after the intergovernmental negotiating committee convened for the first time, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was adopted, and it entered into force another three years later in May 2004. Yet, the work wasn’t complete. When the Convention was adopted, initially targeting the dirty dozen, a provision opened for the identification of additional POPs in the future. Today, the 184 signatory Parties are required to eliminate the production and use of 26 POPs, restrict the use of two chemicals and to reduce the unintentional release of seven substances.

The measures introduced both before and since the establishment of the Stockholm Convention have generally led to decreasing trends of POPs. But, the issue of Arctic pollution isn’t a solved problem, as AMAP’s 2017 report on chemicals of emerging Arctic concern warned. Tens of thousands of chemicals are presently being used globally and new substances continue to enter the market each year – many of which have characteristics similar to legacy pollutants.

“AMAP will continue to play an important role towards the Stockholm Convention in the future. The Working Group has done impressive work in compiling and assessing science on emerging threats such as the interaction of climate change and POPs, and hazardous chemicals that aren’t yet defined as POPs. The future control of chemicals lies with the Stockholm Convention and there is a great opportunity for AMAP to be more involved in global processes. In that regard, I believe greater involvement of scientists from countries such as China and India in AMAPs work processes, would be valuable,” says Eirik Hovland Steindal.

Observations have shown that the decreasing trends of some POPs already regulated under the Stockholm Convention are levelling off, and even indicating upward trends in a few cases. New scientific information is providing increasing evidence of something AMAP already mentioned in its early reports: that climate change is likely affecting Arctic contaminant levels and trends. Model-based studies suggest that the changing climate will impact the transport pathways of contaminants.

It’s crucial to understand how climate change can influence Arctic contaminant levels in order to evaluate past actions and to inform future measures of the Stockholm Convention and other chemical regulatory bodies. The effects of climate change on contaminant transport as projected by modelling studies to date are small compared to the expected effects of global regulatory efforts on reducing contaminants emissions. This is the conclusion of AMAP’s POPs Expert Group, which is working on an assessment on POPs and Chemicals of Emerging Arctic Concern: Influence of Climate Change, to be released at the Arctic Council’s 2021 Ministerial meeting.

Climate-related changes in pollution pathways have potential consequences for how exposed Arctic wildlife will be in future and how in turn the health of Arctic inhabitants, particularly Indigenous peoples and local communities, will be affected. It’s thus only appropriate that the carving of the Inuit mother with her child still often is displayed at Stockholm Convention meetings.