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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: February 2015

8 - Persistent Organic Pollutants and Heavy Metals (Including Mercury)



And another spirit is at hand,

conceived in the restless city,

growing from the rubbish yards of houses and from smoking factories,

a spirit swelling with confidence,

multi-coloured all-embracing

garish quick-nosed ever pacing.

Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, “Putting Out the Hag” from Footsteps From Another World

This chapter tells a tragic story caused by humankind's hubris, “swelling with confidence” in its attitude towards its environment. Here, the Arctic Messenger will tell us how a class of chemicals called persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and some metals (especially mercury) have accumulated through the Arctic ecosystem to top predators and to indigenous peoples. At the heart of the story is the conspiracy of a number of independent properties of these substances that target the Arctic ecosystem. What makes the tragedy so raw is that the potential for this polar conspiracy could have been recognized long before the evidence was stumbled on in the Arctic. As we will see, even more disturbing is the evidence that for POPs, world governments have still only understood and acted on a small portion of the situation described by the Arctic Messenger.

Before we begin, I have a warning. The simplest approach to this chapter would be to describe what we know today about POPs and heavy metals in the Arctic and global environments and to end with a review of the present state of international actions to deal with them. This would have been easy for the reader and for me. But it would have lost the historical perspective of how we came to understand the environ- mental and human health characteristics of these chemicals over the last 30 years. I want the story to be told as it really happened, with science and policy evolving together. When told in this way, the Arctic Messenger's story reveals lessons on the effectiveness of interaction between science and national and international policy.