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Unwelcome travelers: Pesticides in the Arctic

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by Medha Chandra

Endosulfan. Chlorpyrifos. Chlorothalonil. Not words one would associate with the crisp, cold air and water of the Arctic region. But new research shows that these pesticides, among others, are traveling to the Arctic from as far as South East Asia, India and the United States. 

That harmful pesticides travel on wind and water currents to cold northern regions of the world has been known for a while now. But in this latest study, researchers managed to measure the compounds in air and water all the way along their path across the globe, from East Asia to the Arctic.

On a four week expedition from the East China Sea northward to the Chukchi Sea in the high Arctic, researchers tracked the pesticides chlorothalonil, chlorpyrifos, dacthal, dicofol, endosulfan and trifluralin. The data collected will help researchers better understand whether the pesticides travel more readily by air or by water, and how they degrade along the way. 

Harsh impacts of contamination

We already know that the chemicals that reach the Arctic region are wreaking havoc on the health of both humans and the fragile environment.

For example, endosulfan is one of the few persistent pesticides whose levels have been found to be increasing in marine biota of the Canadian Arctic. Endosulfan appears to accumulate more in the bodies of humans, animals and the environment in Arctic ecosystems than in warmer climates. This pesticide has severe health impacts for humans, with exposure linked to developmental defects and reproductive harm. In 2011, endosulfan was finally slated for a global phase out through the Stockholm Convention, the international treaty on persistent organic pollutants.

Chlorpyrifos, another pesticide studied by the research team, is one of the highest volume agricultural pesticides used in the U.S. Studies have found that prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos can have negative impacts on neurodevelopment, including perceptual reasoning, working memory and poorer intellectual development in children. Chlorpyrifos was banned for home use in the U.S. in 2001, but is still used on farms, exposing not only rural residents to health harms, but also communities thousands of miles away in the Arctic.

Arctic communities speak out

With organizations such as the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, communities in the Arctic have long campaigned against pollution of their environment and bodies by such pesticides used in far away places. As Shawna Larson, a long time Indigenous environmental  health activist from the region, explains:

These toxic chemicals trespass our bodies and enter our breast milk – our children and infants are getting them. We are seeing impacts of these through things like respiratory health and breast cancer increases.  

The Indigenous communities of the Arctic call upon all of us to stop polluting their environment, their bodies and those of their children with these pesticides. By doing so, we will not only protect ourselves and our families, but also families in the Arctic who are asking us to take a stand.

Medha Chandra's blog

is PAN's Campaign Coordinator and is the coordinator of PAN International’s Working Group on Pesticides and Corporations. Follow @ChandraMedha

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Satyabroto wrote:

There are established protocols to determine the long range transport of pesticides. These have not been used in the studies you cite. The author of modeling from Zurich has given me written confirmation of the fallacies of his work. The POP Secretary has written to me, asking that these gaps be informed to all POP members. The European pesticide mafia sponsored lie about Endosulfan in sea water can be exposed instantly-just add Endosulfan to sea water: it will dissipate immediately! I am afraid that the pesticide industry laughs up its collective sleeve at the gullibility of well-meaning but ignorant activists.

I admit that pesticide safety is generally ignored in the third world. Please think carefully whether such abuse is limited to Endosulfan alone. Endosulfan bans have opened the floodgates for even more toxic pesticides such as proprietary neonicotinoids, patented by European companies.

I earnestly ask you to shift from vilification of Endosulfan to supporting the safe and judicious use of all pesticides.

Thank you for your courtesy in allowing me to use your esteemed forum to express my views.

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Satyabroto wrote:

Pesticides such as Endosulfan break down instantly in an alkaline environment. This is a standard measure of emergency containment. It can be demonstrated simply, and is irrefutable. The canard of Endosulfan traveling long distances in sea water is patently ridiculous. Drift and volatility can and should be managed by the use of appropriate application equipment and in specified ambient conditions. Finally, allegations of inter-continental pesticide drift are based on models rather than approved empirical evidence. Please consider these issues in order to distinguish between the important cause of safe and judicious pesticide use versus silly propaganda.

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Medha Chandra wrote:

Thank you, Satyabroto for your comment and your interest in this issue. I do, however, have to disagree with your assertions about endosulfan. Endosulfan's long range transport is a well documented fact, with numerous peer reviewed studies available online and in prestigious journals illustrating high levels of endosulfan in Arctic biota. See, for example, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19939436 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21429639. For more detail on endosulfan levels in the Arctic, you can also review this study from our partners at Alaska Community Action on Toxics: Persistent Organic Pollutants in the Arctic: Report for the Delegates of the 4th Conference of the Parties Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants available at http://www.akaction.org/Just_the_Facts/Publications.html. Also see information on the POPs characteristics of endosulfan posted on the Stockholm Convention's own website at http://chm.pops.int/Implementation/NewPOPs/ThenewPOPs/tabid/672/Default.....

Regarding the use of appropriate protective equipment, you must be aware that real world conditions of use, especially in countries of the Global South are very different than idealized methods of use. Thousands of tragic endosulfan related poisonings have occurred in countries across Africa, Latin America and Asia. PAN and our partners around the world are thrilled that endosulfan has finally been targeted by the global community for a well deserved phased out.

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