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Chemicals of emerging Arctic concern
Far from industrialised areas, global human activities and climate change are threatening Arctic ecosystems. A recent study, 'Chemicals of Emerging Arctic Concern', by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) tells how many chemicals that were not expected to reach the region, have turned the Arctic into a sink for global pollutants.
We spoke to Dr Katrin Vorkamp, Senior Researcher at the Arctic Research Centre and the Department of Environmental Science in Aarhus University, Denmark, and one of the editors of the report, to ask how Arctic pollutants are being monitored and what measures can be taken to preserve the region.
Beyond commonly defined pollutants
According to AMAP’s study, there are an estimated 150 000 substances registered for use in commerce and new substances continue to enter global markets each year. Fewer than 1 000 of these are routinely monitored and very little is known about the worldwide environmental release of these new chemicals or their effects on Arctic ecosystems.
AMAP works with a set of priority issues within Arctic contamination and climate change, and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are one such issue as they are toxic for humans and animals and can remain intact in the environment, including in the Arctic, for several years.
While AMAP uses the Stockholm Convention’s definition of POPs in that it recognises their potential for long-range transport, persistence, bioaccumulation and biomagnification, the report highlights that there are other emerging chemicals that warrant attention even though they have traits that fall outside the POP criteria.
“We did not work with a stringent definition of an environmental pollutant, but extended our original focus on POPs to include other organic chemicals present in Arctic ecosystems. Some compounds can even be more problematic in the Arctic than elsewhere. Pharmaceuticals and personal care products, for example, have been shown to be more persistent in the region because of the low temperatures and darkness,” says Dr Vorkamp.
With several substances listed under the Stockholm Convention being phased out, other chemicals with similar chemical characteristics have begun to be used in their place, such as replacement per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) and brominated and chlorinated flame retardants. “Initial data indicate that these compounds can also be transported to the Arctic and, to some extent, accumulate in food chains,” she adds.
Plastic and microplastics of concern
Another increasing problem for the Arctic is the emergence of microplastics. These are small pieces of plastic material, typically less than 5 mm in size that can be formed unintentionally when larger pieces of plastic wear and tear, or can be produced intentionally for a specific purpose, such as for use in exfoliating beads in facial or body scrubs.
Marine plastics are an issue because they can cause physical damage to the region’s ecosystems, especially to fauna. According to Dr Vorkamp, the 'European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy' is a timely response to the globally growing issue of plastic pollution. “We note that the strategy includes international collaboration towards a global solution. Our report describes that sources, transport and degradation pathways for marine plastics in the Arctic are poorly understood. While this is the case, a large-scale approach to tackling plastic pollution appears most likely to succeed in protecting Arctic ecosystems. The combination of ecological and economic goals outlined in the plastics strategy could act as a blueprint for other countries in a similar situation,” she tells.
Issues near and far
Although chemicals may be used locally, they can spread globally causing environmental and health problems in regions where they have hardly been used. While you may think that the ocean currents are the main source of pollutants reaching the region, POPs accumulate in food chains, making the Arctic populations' consumption habits a prominent issue.
“There remains disconcertingly high concentrations of some pollutants in the Arctic’s top predators, which is still a concern for people in the region who rely on traditional and local sources of food,” Dr Vorkamp explains and continues, “In addition to long-range transport of POPs and other compounds, some less persistent chemicals can be emitted locally, for example, with wastewater. Despite a low population density with less cumulative emissions than urbanised areas, this is counteracted by less efficient or, in some cases, no wastewater treatment in the region”.
The report notes that pharmaceuticals and personal care products are seemingly emitted locally, in particular with wastewater discharge, but also suggests that phthalates and siloxanes are being released in wastewater, in addition to reaching the region through long-range transport. Increased chemical production – and related emissions – in new source regions such as Asia, and climate change are factors that the report considers as new challenges for the region.
“The melting of glaciers can release POPs and other chemicals, which have been retained in the ice after atmospheric deposition. Receding sea ice and warmer temperatures also increase the volatilisation of chemicals from the sea. Arctic ecosystems can change as predator-prey relations become affected by climate change phenomena, and some Arctic animals are under stress in addition to being exposed to chemicals,” Dr Vorkamp tells and adds that AMAP is going to address climate and contaminant interactions in a future assessment report.
Importance of science-policy dialogue
Although international conventions, such as the Stockholm Convention of POPs, have been successful in reducing POP concentrations in the environment, they do not cover the vast majority of substances that are currently present in the Arctic.
“The Stockholm Convention seems to have had a significant effect on POP concentrations in the Arctic. However, unlike REACH, it is reactive rather than proactive, meaning that POP properties of a nominated compound need to be documented before the compound can be added to the annexes of the Stockholm Convention,” Dr Vorkamp says.
AMAP’s report argues that the situation is made even more difficult because several years can pass between the introduction of a new chemical to the market and an eventual agreement to ban or restrict its use if it is shown to be hazardous.
“Arctic data can provide evidence of long-range transport, persistence and, depending on the study design, bioaccumulation. As such, the data should be conveyed to the Stockholm Convention’s POP Review Committee in a coordinated and efficient manner and nominating countries are informed about emerging compounds of concern early enough. The importance of science-policy dialogue cannot be stressed enough,” Dr Vorkamp emphasises.
Innovation and new technologies are the key
With the report estimating that less than 1 % of the 150 000 substances in commerce are being regularly monitored, it does, however, acknowledge that not all of these substances are in current use and that not all of those that are currently used are likely to be Arctic contaminants.
There are some approaches that can be taken to identify which substances represent a potential concern for the Arctic region. “In silico approaches and non-target screenings can help to identify relevant compounds for monitoring or targeted analysis. These approaches can be used to narrow down the spectrum of chemicals to focus on, but in silico approaches do not provide empirical evidence on which compounds are being transported to the region, and non-target screenings do not necessarily quantify the amount of compounds in samples taken from the Arctic,” Dr Vorkamp explains.
For non-targeted analysis, relatively new techniques based on high resolution mass spectrometry are used. For targeted analysis, methods are always optimised for the specific compound in question. “The purpose of the targeted analysis is to confirm the identity of a compound and to collect a sample which quantifies the concentration of a particular contaminant. These analyses are often highly specialised and require low detection limits,” she informs.
The report also mentions the screening of databases including:
- the list of pre-registered substances under REACH;
- the European Inventory of Existing Commercial Chemicals Substances (EINECS);
- the European List of Notified Chemical Substances (ELINCS);
- Canada's Domestic Substances List (DSL);
- the US Toxic Substances Control Act Inventory Update Rule (TSCA-IUR); and
- the SMILECAS database included in the US Environmental Protection Agency’s EPI Suite program.
Everything's not lost
International efforts to reduce the release of POPs are already visible. Monitoring in the Arctic has shown a decline in the amount of the ‘dirty dozen’ POPs – the 12 initial POPs listed under the Stockholm Convention – since national regulations were established in Europe and North America in the 1970s and 1980s. “The Stockholm Convention has prevented new production in other parts of the world and in this way has contributed to the ongoing decline,” Dr Vorkamp tells. Later additions to the Stockholm Convention are also being monitored in the Arctic and are beginning to show decreases in their levels.
REACH and other regulatory activities have also had an impact on this according to the report. For example, the concentrations of some substances of very high concern (SVHCs) have also been dwindling in the Arctic in the last few years. “One example of this that we document in the report is that several long-chain perfluorocarboxylic acids that are on the Candidate List have decreased in the Arctic in the last few years, even though they are not included in the Stockholm Convention,” she ends.
Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP)
The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) was established in June 1991 by the eight Arctic countries – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Since its establishment, the programme has documented the extent and effects of pollution in the Arctic and tracked new developments to help to inform policy decisions.
AMAP aims to provide reliable and sufficient information on the status of the Arctic environment and any threats to it. The programme provides scientific advice to support Arctic governments in their efforts to take remedial and preventive actions to reduce adverse effects of contaminants and climate change. The AMAP Secretariat is located in Tromsø, Norway.
Did you know?
Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are carbon-based, organic chemical substances that possess a particular combination of physical and chemical properties such that, once released into the environment, they:
Interview by Irene Poza Latorre
Published on: 17 May 2018
Top image: IStock.com/JanMiko
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