The Planet’s Chemical Trash Can

The author spent two years researching how the Arctic became the final destination for much of the industrial world’s toxic waste.

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As Marla Cone writes in her article, “Dozens of Words for Snow, None for Pollution,” in the current issue of Mother Jones, the Arctic has become the final destination for toxic waste — industrial chemicals, pesticides, power plant emissions — that originates thousands of miles away. Each one of the “dirty dozen” chemicals, from PCBs to chlordane and DDT, have found their way into the region’s food chain and consequently into the native people.

A population accustomed to eating the whale that has sustained them for centuries is now being asked, for the good of their health, to switch to more expensive, imported foods, ones that may have preservatives, but at least don’t have high levels of toxaphene.

Cone, a Los Angeles Times reporter who’s been writing on the environment for nearly two decades, spent the better part of two years working on her forthcoming book, Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic. The book describes how it happened that the people of the region came to carry more contaminants than anyone, anywhere in the world. She recently spoke by phone with about her experience researching and writing Silent Snow. How did you come to land on this project?

Marla Cone: Back in the mid 1990s, I was writing a series of stories on chemicals that suppress the immune system. I was asking around where the human exposures would be to chemicals like PCBs. I really expected it be around the Great Lakes or around the Baltic or someplace in a heavily industrialized or urban area. And when I was told that the highest-known levels of PCB exposure were in the Canadian Arctic in a place called Nunavik, I was really shocked. I couldn’t imagine why people up there were so highly exposed when they were living in such a remote area.

So I sort of put in the back of my mind that I wanted to look into this in more depth, but I knew it would be time-consuming and costly. A few years later I was nominated for a Pew fellowship. When you are nominated for that you’re allowed to come up with your own project. This would give me time and resources, and I could do it the way I really wanted to do it rather than just make one quick trip. I won the fellowship and it launched me on a multi-year project [starting in 1999]. Up to that point how much coverage had there been on contaminants in the Arctic?

MC: Very little. Climate change in the Arctic was starting to get some coverage, and there wasn’t much coverage even of that. The Arctic is sort of this place that belongs to everybody and nobody, so reporters were not looking into this. Is there more awareness now?

MC: There has been some improvement, but not much. My stories have gotten a lot of attention. The climate-change issue obviously has gotten a lot more attention, much more attention than the pollutants angle — and I am sort of distressed about that. I think it should have equal weight. We are talking about immediate human-health impacts of the high levels of contaminants these people and animals are exposed to. Why do you think that the story of global pollution in the arctic and its effects on humans is getting so little play?

MC: Part of it is the issue of resources that I was facing. To really understand it you need to go up there and see how the people live and how the wildlife are exposed. And also a lot of reporters don’t want to touch the environmental-health, the toxic-compounds aspects. It’s very difficult; the science is difficult to understand. And there are no immediate effects, people are not dropping dead. Yet it’s so important that we do have an understanding of the issues.

MC: Yes, because it is affecting especially the children. And I have always told people that the Arctic is sort of a barometer here. These are the most highly exposed people on earth but we are all exposed to these very same contaminants. We have the same contaminants in our bodies in California as they do in the Arctic, just at different levels. And some Americans are as highly exposed as people in the Arctic, depending on what they eat. What are some of the lasting lessons you learned from your time in the Arctic?

MC: The most enduring lesson was how dependent the people of the Arctic are on their traditional foods. I really thought it was sort of an outdated type of quaint thing that people were eating these types of food, but that they didn’t have to. But they do. Not only is it their most plentiful resource, it is very difficult to get imported food, and imported foods are not as good tasting or as healthy for them. There are so many benefits to their diet. The world would be a better place if people ate the way that people do in the Arctic. Everyone says, Oh, it is a high-fat diet. But it is the good fats, the Omega three fats. And they are so healthy otherwise: their hearts are healthy, they have low cancer rates. There are so many benefits, so much nutrition to this food.

I realized there that I wouldn’t have survived. I wondered how I would do camping out on the ice with the Inuit if I couldn’t stand eating their foods. So I would bring Power Bars and other foods I am used to hiking with like trail mix, so I had something if I couldn’t stomach the muktuk and the seal and all that. They were useless, totally useless out there. More than that, I came to a point where I was craving the native foods. I never really did come to like the muktuk because of how chewy the texture is, but the seal was very good. It was like boiled ribs, and it just warmed you from the inside, kept you warm for hours. My most lasting image and memory of the place is how important the foods are. And culturally too, all their art is based on their environment, their foods. Their storytelling, their spirituality, all of that is related to their traditional foods. The Inuit are eating foods that, because of contamination, are no longer healthy. And yet, those foods are also traditionally and culturally a part of their identity. How do they reconcile the two: their health vs. their culture?

MC: It is a very mixed message. The Canadian government especially has been struggling with this for the past 15 years, trying to find the right message. At first they didn’t want to give any information. They just told people eat your healthy foods, nurse your babies, everything is okay. Then they realized that there are risks involved. Especially lately they have been finding a lot of risks for children so they have to moderate that message.They still want that message out that these foods are beneficial — they don’t want to scare people off the foods. But they do want to stop if they can, some of these high exposures, and that might mean limiting some types of foods. It has worked very well in the Faroe Islands, where women of childbearing age have stopped or reduced their consumption of Pilot whales because their mercury levels were so high and there were effects on their children. Almost immediately women started cutting back. They, though, have more choices for their food. They are a pretty affluent society, they are Danish, their only link to the arctic way of life is their eating of whales. When there are communities where there are not alternatives it gets more complicated.

MC: In Greenland and Arctic Canada especially there are very few choices. And even in Barrow, Alaska, it is a fairly affluent Arctic society because they have oil money but the food is so costly there, it is so expensive and they don’t like much of the meat that is imported there. They would much rather have their Bowhead whale. Then it becomes a [question] of how you communicate to people who don’t even have a word in their language for contaminant. How did you find the Kristiansen family? How long did you spend with them?

MC: I found them through Ingmar Egede, an activist who lived in Nuuk Greenland, the capital. I told him I wanted to find the most traditional way of life in Greenland. He suggested Qaanaaq. He tracked down for me the best hunters in the region and that’s Mamarut and Gedion. We were out on the ice a week. Unfortunately, they did not catch a narwhal while I was there. Did you have a translator? The language of the Inuit is constructed very differently from English where phrases in English are captured in what appears to be a single word. Does meaning get lost in translation even more so than usual with Inuktitut?

MC: They don’t speak a word of English and I don’t speak a word of Greenlandic, so it was challenging. It was really difficult asking them questions about contaminants in their food because they frankly didn’t care about the contaminants in their food. It just was not an issue for them. It was more an issue of, Where are the narwhal? Why are we seeing less beluga? The pressure on Greenland to not sell sealskin, the attitudes toward whaling. Those are all big issues in Greenland but when you ask them about contaminants, there are some people who are really aware, like Ingmar, who were on an international political scene and they were angry about how all this contamination was coming from elsewhere, but when you talk to people like the hunters, the Kristiansen brothers, they just want to be left alone to do what they do. They are a little bit suspicious about the scientists coming in and measuring the contaminants and that. They think it might be some kind of conspiracy to get them to acclimate to a more urbanized way of life.

If their governments had made better efforts to communicate with them, it might be different. But they told me, “Well, we heard about it on the radio.” They heard nothing from their doctors, nothing from the clinics and nothing from their governments. If any of those had made it a priority, which they should have, then they would have known more. In Canada everyone is aware, it’s different there. It has become a national issue. The Canadian Inuit are more aware of it and they have more power and more clout. But in Greenland the majority of the people are Inuit and their government has not wanted to face how to handle that. So it is totally different situation there than it has been in Canada. Canada has at least tried. Much of the health research is focused on infants and mothers. Is this because the toxins are relatively new or that they are easiest to trace via breast milk?

MC: Initially, when they are looking for contaminants scientists look for breast milk because it is not invasive. But there are reasons that go way beyond that. It does seem that with most of these contaminants the most sensitive, vulnerable endpoint is the fetus. These are developmental pollutants they affect the developing immune system, reproductive system and brain. And so, when the fetus is exposed — and we are not even talking breast milk here; we are talking prenatally — that is when the biggest effects happen. There are some effects on adults who are exposed, but it’s mostly the developing child. Where would you direct people who want to learn more about the heath research and its implications?

MC: The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program web site, for Norway. There are health reports in there and some of them are written in layman’s language, talking about what the human and ecological health effects are. What about for those who want to learn more about the Inuit culture and the cultural implications of pollutants?

MC: The Canadian government has done a very good job of this. They have a Northern Contaminants Program that has put out reports about health.

I did a lot of research on the Inuit way of life based on its art, mostly the sculptures. You take a look at the sculptures that the Inuit are making, particularly in Canada, and you realize how closely tied they are to their hunting and their traditional foods, as well as their songs and their poetry. The museums are all in Canada. There is not really a booming Arctic tourist industry, so few people really learn about the place.

MC: No, although tourists do go to Barrow, Alaska just to say they have crossed the Arctic Circle. But they are usually not seeing the real way of life up there. And I was fooled by that too. When I saw Barrow, I thought, “These people don’t need their traditional food.” But then I attended one of their spring festivals and I thought, okay everyone is going to get a whale dinner here. It will be 600 people and they will have one dinner and that’s it. But no, they bring home ice chests full of food that they eat the whole year, they keep in their freezers. Whether it is in one of the old fashioned freezers in the ground or a real freezer. It is so important, especially to the elderly people who cant afford to go buy that beef and that steak and that chicken and they don’t like it. Is the polar bear in the picture of you (in the contributors’ section of the magazine) dead or alive?

MC: No, no that is a tranquilized bear. That was when we were doing work with the scientists. They were tranquilizing the bears to take fat samples. That was not a hunted bear. Did you have any run-ins with Arctic wildlife?

MC: I supposed the closest I came to that was when I was on Mamarut’s sledge and he saw a seal way off in the distance. Boy, they have great eyesight, there is a little pinpoint of a seal out there on the ice and he can see it, so he takes his rifle and his blind and he walked off to get closer to the seal. The dogs get very excited by this. This is their food. I am not sure if they enjoy the hunt or if they just want the food or both. But I had gotten off to take a picture of Mamarut walking and the dogs took off after Mamarut. They were gone within seconds, a little tiny thing off in the horizon.

I knew they were going to come back for me. But there was nothing visible on the horizon that I could see. And it was this momentary flash of fear, that if I was left there I would be dead. I don’t have hunting skills, I don’t have any hunting equipment. Right in that second it really made me realize, even if there wasn’t a polar bear in the area, that I would be dead of starvation, because I wouldn’t know how to take care of myself. And it’s amazing that these people do know how to take care of themselves. Yet it is modern society that is putting their survival skills to the test because we’ve added this new threat to their survival.


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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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