Alaska Community Actions on Toxics (ACAT)

Indigenous people fight toxics in Arctic


Courtesy of Courtesy of Alaska Community Actions on Toxics (ACAT)

The fourth meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Conference of the Parties of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants opened today in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss restricting and phasing out the world’s most dangerous chemicals. Representatives from Indigenous communities of the Arctic greeted the delegates with drumming and traditional songs to remind them of their obligations to protect the health of present and future generations. The Indigenous Peoples are participating in the meetings this week to urge the Parties to the Convention to integrate a comprehensive human rights framework through the United Nations and the implementation of the Stockholm Convention.

Some Arctic Indigenous populations have shown “levels of contaminants in blood and breast milk higher than those found anywhere else on the Earth.” The Arctic acts as a “cold trap” for contaminants transported via atmospheric and oceanic currents. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) accumulate and some may increase in the Arctic food web. Indigenous communities of the north are reliant on a traditional diet of foods from the land and ocean for their physical, cultural, and spiritual sustenance. These communities are at particular risk from contaminant exposures. In some cases, there are significant exceedances of national and international health standards for exposure to such chemicals as PCBs.

“The Indigenous Arctic peoples are suffering the most from these chemicals,” says Vi Waghiyi, a Yupik woman from St. Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea, “because the chemicals – DDT, endosulfan, lindane, perfluorinated compounds and toxic flame retardants, to name a few – are long lasting, and drift North on wind and water currents from where they are applied in the Southern latitudes. That means these chemicals are also in our traditional foods and affecting our health and the health of our children.”

Exposures to POPs chemicals are associated with harmful health effects at extremely low doses, including immune system suppression, learning and developmental disabilities, diabetes, impairment of reproductive health, and certain cancers. Levels of PCBs and other contaminants are elevated among some Arctic Indigenous populations and have been found to be within the range associated with effects on learning and immune function. A previous study demonstrated that the Yupik people of St. Lawrence Island have significantly higher body burdens of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) than the background populations in the U.S. and Canada. Studies have confirmed that Arctic populations relying on marine foods have exposure levels to POPs and methyl mercury related to the amount of traditional foods eaten and at levels associated with adverse health effects. The Alaska State Department of Public Health conducted a study in 2008 that documents the highest birth defect rates in the United States, double the national average. A 2007 report by scientists from the United Nations Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme show a gender imbalance in Arctic communities in Greenland, Canada and Russia due to elevated levels of chemicals there.

The Preamble of the Stockholm Convention recognizes the special vulnerability of Arctic Indigenous Peoples and states: “Acknowledging that the Arctic ecosystems and indigenous communities are particularly at risk because of biomagnifications of persistent organic pollutants and that contamination of their traditional foods is a public health issue.”

“For the past eight years, the U.S. has refused to ratify the Stockholm Convention, the international treaty that demands a global phase-out of these dangerous chemicals,” according to Andrea Carmen, Executive Director of the International Indian Treaty Council. “The chemical industry has spent millions lobbying Congress to delay responsible ratification and implementation with public health in mind. This has cost human lives and the health of those living in the Arctic. Even when Congress did try to ratify it, they put so many restrictions on for the benefit of the chemical industry it would have been a useless act. Time is running out and the U.S. Congress has got to take a stand and fight for the lives of the contaminated people and environments of the North. They must ratify the treaty with the Precautionary Principle standards intact. We are travelling to Geneva to inform the other nations that for us this is not an abstract issue—we need action now to stop the production of these chemicals that affect our health and the health of future generations. These chemicals harm everyone—we believe it is our responsibility to protect the health of all peoples of our Mother Earth.”

Many participants in the Stockholm Convention are paying close attention to the U.S. involvement in the upcoming meeting, and are hoping the new U.S. administration will take a stand to protect the Indigenous people of the North.

Members of the Indigenous Delegation to the Stockholm Convention Conference of Parties (COP4) available for interviews include:

• Andrea Carmen, Yaqui, Executive Director, International Indian Treaty Council; 907-745-4482
• Jane Kava, Inupiat—St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, Mayor of Savoonga; 907-984-6614
• Margaret Celeste McKay, Métis—Native Women’s Association of Canada; 204-237-1555
• Vi Waghiyi, Yupik—St. Lawrence Island, Alaska; 907-222-7714; 907-841-5163
• Mike Williams, Yupik—Native Village of Akiak, and Chair of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council; 907-765-7426

Also Available for Interviews

• Shawna Larson Carmen, Environmental Justice Director at Alaska Community Action on Toxics and staff member of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL). She is Ahtna Athabascan (Indian) from Chickaloon Village on her father’s side, and Supiaq (Aleut/Eskimo) from the village of Port Graham on her mother’s side. 907-222-7714; cell (907) 841-5163

• Joseph DiGangi, Ph.D. Senior Scientist, Environmental Health Fund. 312-566-0985

• Pamela K Miller, Executive Director, Alaska Community Action on Toxics. 907-222-7714, cell 907-242-9991,

• David O. Carpenter, MD, Director, Institute for Health and the Environment
University at Albany, 518 525-266,

United Nations Environment Program Stockholm Convention

Alaska Community Action on Toxics

Indigenous Environmental Network

International POPs Elimination Network

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