An Environment Canada scientist whose work on contaminants in the Arctic environment helped lead to global controls on toxic chemicals is getting an award.
Derek Muir has received the $100,000 Weston Family Prize for research that led to groundbreaking international restrictions on persistent organic pollutants. His findings showed those carcinogens were able to move into the Arctic and concentrate in the bodies of animals and people.
“It makes me feel that the science we were doing was very worthwhile,” Muir said. “It’s motivation to keep going with more chemical measurements in the Arctic, because the Arctic is a sentinel area.”
At one time, Canada’s Inuit carried some of the highest PCB levels in the world, up to 10 times the levels found in southern Canada. The chemical was even found in the breast milk of Inuit mothers.
A 2003 study found subtle but statistically significant nervous system and behavioural changes, possibly linked to PCBs, in Inuit babies.
The following year, at least partly due to the work of Muir and his colleagues, the Stockholm Convention came into effect. It limited or banned the use of a number of chemicals, including notorious poisons such as DDT.
By 2008, PCB levels in beluga, narwhal, walrus and ringed seal had fallen by an average of 43 per cent. Although it varied in different parts of the Arctic, the amount of the chemical Inuvialuit or Inuit people were exposed to dropped an average of 20 per cent over the previous decade.
There are now 182 countries that have signed the convention, which regulates 27 chemicals.
So-called “legacy contaminants” remain top predators in the North. But now, Muir said, a new generation of chemicals is coming into play.
“We’re seeing new contaminants which we know are being used in consumer products and buildings and all sorts of … urban areas, and we see them appearing in the North.”
They include stain repellents, flame retardants and pharmaceuticals. A recent paper documented about 150 such compounds.
Muir said information on how the chemicals move and what effects they have on their own and in combination is needed.
Agreements such as the Stockholm Convention show the world can come together to address environmental problems, he said.
“The scientists were able to put results in the hands of people who were really motivated to take a managerial leap.”
Muir’s award was announced Wednesday, the day after an American science agency delivered another gloomy report card on the impact of climate change on the Arctic.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has concluded surface air temperatures in the Arctic continue to warm twice as fast as the rest of the globe. Air temperatures for the last five years have exceeded all previous records since 1900.
More Stockholm Conventions are needed, Muir said.
“We have better instrumental capacity and better knowledge than we had in the 1980s when I was starting. We’re in a much better position,” he said. “But I guess science needs to be translated more into action.”
Muir credited the Weston Foundation with funding much of the research that goes on today in the Canadian Arctic.
“They’ve really had an impact on northern science.”
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Bob Weber, The Canadian Press