The Arctic is the last place on Earth I expected to find the world's most severe toxic contamination," writes Marla Cone in the introduction to her...

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“Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic”
by Marla Cone
Grove Press, 222 pp., $24

“The Arctic is the last place on Earth I expected to find the world’s most severe toxic contamination,” writes Marla Cone in the introduction to her fascinating new book, “Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic.”

Cone, a journalist for 26 years — 19 of them covering environmental issues — began in 1996 researching a series of articles for the Los Angeles Times about pollutants that suppress immune systems. What she found left her “incredulous,” she writes.

She knew that now-banned PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls used as coolants, insulators and hydraulic fluids) were considered one of the worst “environmental villains of the twentieth century,” and that they had been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, damage to developing brains and suppressed immunities. She expected the densest concentrations of toxins to be the heavily industrialized Great Lakes or Baltic regions.

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But instead of the usual hot spots, Cone learned that in Nunavik, a native village in Canada near the North Pole, breast milk samples collected in 1987 contained up to 10 times more PCBs and pesticides than amounts found in women of Canada’s biggest cities.

How had the Arctic — “seemingly untouched by contemporary ills, so innocent, so primitive, so natural” — become host to “the greatest environmental injustice on Earth”? After nearly five years of preparation, numerous research trips and a Pew Fellowship to study the question, Cone calls the answer the Arctic Paradox, an “environmental whodunit” of “worldwide relevance.”

None of the estimated 650,000 indigenous people of the circumpolar north produces any poison contaminants, she explains, yet this population is being endangered by its traditional foods. Chemicals from worlds away arrive in migratory birds, fish and whales. They travel via ocean currents or on prevailing winds in their gaseous forms. They condense, then fall to earth where animals feed and humans hunt.

These toxic “hitchhikers,” which aren’t easily expelled from the body and accumulate in fat, can take years or even decades to reach the north. A diet of seal or whale meat, blubber, fish and milk is mostly fat. Worse, “animals at the top of the food web have eaten all the contaminants consumed by their prey and their prey’s prey. Arctic food ladders have as many as five rungs, and at each step, the chemicals can magnify in concentration twentyfold or more in a phenomenon called biomagnification.”

People and polar bears occupy the top rung. In Greenland, she notes, human bodies and breast milk had “such extraordinary loads” that they could be “classified as hazardous waste.”

Should native populations abandon traditional diets and breast-feeding babies? The question is far more involved than it appears to those of us with abundant nutritional choices. There, by contrast, harsh climate prevents growing alternative foods; also, the high cost of import items puts them beyond reach, especially for low-income groups. Also, because hunting and sharing meat figures prominently in these societies, changing what they consume would dismantle skills, values and survival systems successful for thousands of years.

Should countries producing toxic chemicals ban production? The complexity of proving cause and effect has left scientists fighting decades of resistance by governments and big business.

In humans and wildlife, infectious diseases and weakened immune systems are increasing. Scientists have measured decreased learning abilities in children and have documented “reproductive oddities” such as altered sex-hormone levels, malformed genitalia and even hermaphroditism in animals.

While one chapter describes progress, Cone cites the United States’ lack of leadership on these issues. The insecticide DDT and PCBs are banned but still present; new, possibly worse, chemicals have replaced them. One of many, PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) “appear to be off-gassing from furniture, carpets, computers … ” They also occur not only in fats but, ominously, in vegetable products such as infant soy formula.

“The effects of the new contaminants,” Cone warns, “are eerily familiar.”