Partner Spotlight: Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT)

written by Pam Miller, ACATPhoto Credit: ACAT

The Arctic is a hemispheric sink for persistent industrial chemicals and pesticides that are transported on atmospheric and oceanic currents from lower latitudes through a process known as global distillation.[i],[ii] These chemicals bioaccumulate in the bodies of fish, wildlife, and people of the north. Far from pristine, the Arctic contains some of the most highly contaminated animals and people in the world.[iii],[iv],[v],[vi],[vii],[viii] These problems are exacerbated by the rapid pace and magnitude of climate change in the Arctic which is now known to be warming at a much faster rate than earlier studies predicted—nearly four times faster than the planet as a whole.[ix] Melting of sea ice, permafrost, and glaciers is mobilizing sequestered chemical contaminants and microplastics, threatening the health of our oceans, fish, wildlife, and peoples of the north.[x],[xi] We see growing awareness of the Arctic as a place of vulnerability and an increasing interest in concerted action to protect the health and well-being of this region, its wildlife and peoples.

Our research team has been conducting community-based participatory environmental health research on Sivuqaq (traditional name for St Lawrence Island) for more than 22 years. Sivuqaq is located in the northern Bering Sea region of Alaska approximately 61 km from the Chukotka Peninsula of Russia and 322 km from the Alaskan mainland. Sivuqaq is home to approximately 1,700 Yupik residents living in the communities of Gambell and Savoonga. The people of Sivuqaq rely on a traditional diet of greens, berries, fish, reindeer, and marine mammals for their physical, cultural, and spiritual sustenance.

Initially, this community-based research collaboration began with Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) at the request of respected Savoonga elder and community health aide Annie Alowa. Annie witnessed health disparities among her people such as cancers, thyroid disease, miscarriages, birth defects, and reproductive disorders, particularly among the people who lived and worked at Northeast Cape on Sivuqaq. Because of the island’s strategic geopolitical location, the U.S. established an Aircraft Control and Warning Station and White Alice Communications System Station at Northeast Cape (NEC) that operated from 1952-1972. The military displaced the traditional community of approximately 130 residents of NEC that included a governing tribal council, who re-located to Savoonga. Prior to the military occupation, NEC and the Suqitughneq (Suqi) River were an especially important area for subsistence gathering, fishing, and hunting. The Suqi River was abundant with fish and the water was safe to drink. In a letter dated April 7, 1951, the Savoonga Tribal Council granted the U.S. Air Force a land withdrawal for military use at NEC with clear conditions, including the following provision: “Any refuse or garbage will not be dumped in streams or near the beach within the proposed area.[xii] The military site encompassed about 39 km2 and included 25 industrial buildings, an airstrip, and associated support facilities. When the military abandoned NEC in 1972, they left extensive debris and hazardous waste in violation of the 1951 agreement. Contamination of soils, sediments, surface waters, groundwater, and biota derives from massive petroleum spills and releases of solvents, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides, and heavy metals.[xiii] Within the NEC formerly used defense site, 30 areas of contamination were identified for investigation and removal actions.[xiv]

Northeast Cape was once a vital community and gathering place for traditional foods. Residents want to re-establish the community at NEC; however, the health and safety of the people, lands, waters, and traditional foods must be ensured. The watershed of the Suqi River is still severely polluted and the contamination prevents the safe consumption of traditional foods and practicing of cultural activities. Contamination also prevents the recovery of fish populations. Seal haul-outs at the mouth of the river also have not recovered. Collectively, both traditional knowledge and our data suggest that NEC is still unsafe for traditional practices and re-establishment of the traditional community. As the governing entity, the communities reiterate their right and authority to establish the  impact of the lands and waters damaged by military activities at NEC.

Much of our community-based research has focused on documenting the nature and extent of contamination at the formerly used defense site at NEC, including extensive sampling of sediments, plants, and fish. We have documented elevated levels of PCBs, mercury, and pesticides in the environment and in fish. We have found that concentrations of numerous contaminants in the ninespine stickleback fish closely mirror concentrations in the blood serum of the people of Sivuqaq, indicating that stickleback are an effective sentinel species on the island.[xv],[xvi] Despite extensive site remediation of the former military site at NE Cape, stickleback and blackfish remain heavily contaminated with PCBs. PCBs are disrupting the endocrine function of fish (thyroid, reproductive) and decreasing expression of genes important in repairing gene mutations. In addition, vitellogenin concentrations in male stickleback indicate exposure to estrogenic contaminants (such as certain PCB congeners).[xvii] The widespread health disruption in the fish is consistent with health problems of people on the island. Even after site remediation, contaminants from formerly used defense sites in remote regions of the Arctic remain a potential health threat to local residents, in this case, Yupik people who had no influence over site selection and use by the United States military. A recent paper documented elevated levels of PCBs and mercury in Dolly varden, an important subsistence fish, downstream from the military site.[xviii]

We also investigate the levels and effects of persistent chemicals derived through global distillation, including PCBs, flame retardant chemicals, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Our research has documented that Sivuqaq residents have concentrations of PCBs in their blood serum that are six to nine times higher than found in people who live in the lower-48 states. The people of Savoonga who have traditional connections to Northeast Cape have even higher levels of PCBs in their blood serum than people of Sivuqaq who are not associated with Northeast Cape[xix]. Our findings suggest that global transport of PCBs into the Arctic coupled with elevated levels in traditional foods results in elevated PCBs in Sivuqaq residents,[xx] while some residents experience added exposure from the military contamination at Northeast Cape.[xxi]  Our research has also documented the presence and effects of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), persistent legacy flame retardant chemicals that have been used in furniture foam and electronics, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), used in stain and stick resistant applications. Certain PBDEs and PFAS are present in elevated levels of the people of Sivuqaq, with sources including traditional foods and household dust, and disrupt thyroid homeostasis.[xxii],[xxiii],[xxiv][xxv]

The community-based research on Sivuqaq is guided by elders and other community leaders, and now includes eight universities[xxvi] working together with the tribes and Alaska Community Action on Toxics. We train local people as community health researchers for the biomonitoring work. The research informs agency decisions and aims to hold the military accountable for responsible clean up of the formerly used defense sites. We educate parents, teachers, and health care providers about ways they can reduce exposures to harmful endocrine-disrupting chemicals in their homes and environment. And the results of our research also inform environmental health policies at the state, national, and international levels. Alaska Community Action on Toxics organizes with community leaders to present information to policymakers in Juneau, Washington DC, and in Geneva, Switzerland at the United Nations. We have been active in the negotiation and implementation of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs treaty), a global legally binding treaty to eliminate the world’s most dangerous chemicals. The Preamble of the Convention acknowledges “that the Arctic ecosystems and Indigenous communities are particularly at risk because of the biomagnification of persistent organic pollutants and that contamination of their traditional foods is a public health issue.”[xxvii]

We recognize that it is critical for us to achieve comprehensive chemicals policy reform at state, national and international levels in order to protect the health of present and future generations, because chemicals do not recognize political boundaries.

Take action!

Please write to President Joe Biden to urge his Administration to take strong and urgent actions nationally and internationally to address the plastics crisis. Plastics production, use, and disposal threaten the health of fenceline and environmental justice communities, fish and wildlife, and people throughout the world.

Plastics production and disposal are significant contributors to climate change. For example, the plastics industry in the U.S. was responsible for 232 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, equivalent to emissions from 116 coal-fired power plants of average size (approximately 500 megawatts). Exposure to plastics and the toxic chemicals used in their production are linked with a range of adverse health outcomes, including reproductive and neurodevelopmental harm, and cancers. Plastic pollution also results in injury and death in wildlife.

Currently, 175 nations are currently a global treaty on plastics. The U.S. is lagging behind many countries with their lack of commitment toward meaningful action and with their adoption of much of industry’s positions that would perpetuate exponential increases in plastics production. We need a strong treaty that drastically reduces plastics production, eliminates the most dangerous plastics and chemical additives, promotes transparency, a just transition, and safer solutions such as non-toxic reuse and refill.

Here are some suggested talking points for your letter, however please make it your own and tell your own story:

  • Endorse mandatory limits on plastic production and require full chemicals transparency, as well as restrictions on single use plastics, high priority chemicals and polymers of concern, and toxic processes like “chemical recycling” as part of the global plastic treaty currently being negotiated;
  • Discontinue support – including via permitting, de-regulation, and subsidy – for all plastic waste disposal methods that generate toxic air pollution and hazardous waste, including gasification, pyrolysis, and other processes which the plastic industry continues to greenwash as “chemical recycling,” “advanced recycling” and “molecular recycling;”
  • Use the government’s purchasing, research, and regulatory power to reduce plastic production, consumption, and disposal; increase transparency and public right-to-know about the toxic chemicals used in plastic production and the harmful emissions being released to communities; and promote a just transition to a toxic-free, reuse-based economy.

Pamela Miller founded Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) in 1997 and serves as Executive Director. Since 2016, she has served as Co-Chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), a network of more than six hundred environmental health and justice organizations working in more than 120 countries. She is a Principal Investigator for community-based participatory research projects in the Arctic supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Alaska Toxic has been a grant partner of the Presbyterian Hunger Program since 2018. 

[i] MacDonald, RW, LA Barrie, TF Bidleman, ML Diamond, DJ Gregor, RG Semkin, et al. 2000. Contamination in the Canadian Arctic: 5 years of progress in understanding sources, occurrence, and pathways. The Science of the Total Environment 254(2-3):93-234.

[ii] Rigét, F. A Bignert, B Braune, J Stow, S Wilson. 2010. Temporal trends of legacy POPs in Arctic biota, an update. The Science of the Total Environment 408:2874-2884.

[iii] Ayotte, P., G Carrier, E Dewailly. 1996. Health risk assessment for Inuit newborns exposed to dioxin-like compounds through breast feeding. Chemosphere 32: 531-542.

[iv] Dewailly, E., A  Nantel, J-P Weber, F Meyer. 1989. High levels of PCBs in breast milk of Inuit women from arctic Quebec. Bull. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 43:  641-646.

[v] Dewailly, E. et al. 1999. Concentration of organochlorines in human brain, liver, and adipose tissue autopsy samples from Greenland. Environmental Health Perspectives 107: 823-828.

[vi] Ayotte, P. et al. 1997. PCBs and dioxin-like compounds in plasma of adult Inuit living in Nunavik (arctic Quebec). Chemosphere 34:1459-1468.

[vii] Walker, J.B. et al. 2003. Organochlorine levels in maternal and umbilical cord blood plasma in arctic Canada. The Science of the Total Environment 302:27-52.

[viii] Blais, J.M., 2005. Biogeochemistry of persistent bioaccumulative toxicants: processes affecting the transport of contaminants to remote areas. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 62:236-243.

[ix] Rantanen, M. et al. 2022. The Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the globe since 1979. Communications Earth and Environment 3:168.

[x] United Nations Environment Program/Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program. 2011. Climate Change and POPs: Predicting the Impacts. Report of the UNEP/AMAP Expert Group. Secretariat of the Stockholm Convention, Geneva. 62 pp.

[xi] Hung H. et al. 2022. Climate change influence on the levels and trends of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and chemicals of emerging Arctic concern (CEACs) in the Arctic physical environment – a review. Environmental Sciences: Processes and Impacts. 24:1577-1615.

[xii] Letter from Tribal Council of the Native Village of Savoonga to Charles Jones, Area Director of the Alaska Native Service (April 7, 1951).

[xiii] Scrudato R. et al. 2012. Contaminants at arctic formerly used defense sites. Journal of Local and Global

Health Science 2:1-12.

[xiv] USACE. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Decision Document: Hazardous, Toxic, and Radioactive Waste F10AK096903, Northeast Cape Formerly Used Defense Site, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska (January 2009).

[xv] Byrne, S. et al. 2015. Persistent Organochlorine Pesticide Exposure Related to a Formerly Used Defense Site on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska: Data from Sentinel Fish and Human Sera. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A: 78:15, 976-992.

[xvi] Byrne, S.  et al. 2017. Exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers and perfluoroalkyl substances in a remote population of Alaska Natives. Environmental Pollution 231(Pt 1):387-395.

[xvii] von Hippel F.A. et al. 2018. Endocrine disruption and differential gene expression in sentinel fish on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska: health implications for indigenous residents. Environmental Pollution 234:279-287.

[xviii] Jordan-Ward, R. et al. 2022. Elevated mercury and PCB concentrations in Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma) collected near a formerly used defense site on Sivuqaq, Alaska. The Science of the Total Environment 826:154067.

[xix] Carpenter, D.O. et al. 2005. Polychlorinated Biphenyls in Serum of the Siberian Yupik People from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. International Journal of Circumpolar Health 64:4.

[xx] Welfinger-Smith, G. et al. 2011. Organochlorine and Metal Contaminants in Traditional Foods from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A.74:1195-1214.

[xxi] Carpenter, DO et al. 2005. Polychlorinated Biphenyls in Serum of the Siberian Yupik People from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. International Journal of Circumpolar Health 64:4.

[xxii] Byrne, S.  et al. 2017. Exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers and perfluoroalkyl substances in a remote population of Alaska Natives. Environmental Pollution 231(Pt 1):387-395.

[xxiii] Byrne, S. et al. 2017. Associations between serum polybrominated diphenyl ethers and thyroid hormones in a remote Alaska Native population. Environmental Pollution 231:387-305.

[xxiv] Byrne, S. et al. 2018. Exposure to perfluoroalkyl substances and associations with serum thyroid hormones in a remote population of Alaska Natives. Scientific Reports 8:2198-2207.

[xxv] Byrne, S. et al. 2022. PFAS and PBDEs in Traditional Subsistence Foods from Sivuqaq, Alaska. Environmental Science and Pollution Research: June 8, 2022.

[xxvi] University at Albany, Emory University, University of Alaska, Northern Arizona University, University of Arizona, Middlebury College, University of Oregon, and New York University.

[xxvii] Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Text and Annexes (Revised in 2019). United Nations Environment Program.

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