BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific
BBCi NEWS   SPORT   WEATHER   WORLD SERVICE   A-Z INDEX     

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Science/Nature  
News Front Page
Africa
Americas
Asia-Pacific
Europe
Middle East
South Asia
UK
Business
Entertainment
Science/Nature
Technology
Health
-------------
Talking Point
-------------
Country Profiles
In Depth
-------------
Programmes
-------------
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
SERVICES
-------------
EDITIONS
Thursday, 26 September, 2002, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
Chemicals spark Arctic alert
Polar bear, BBC WILD/Mats Forsberg

Chemicals used to make household products fire-resistant are being discovered in several Arctic species.

The chemicals, brominated flame retardants, appear to be concentrated in the Norwegian Arctic.


In Svalbard, the bear cub survival rate is half what you find in Canada and Alaska

Geir Wing Gabrielsen
They are being found in the region's polar bears, whose cubs have a lower survival rate than elsewhere.

They are also turning up in seabirds' eggs, and local people are now being warned not to eat them.

The extent of the contamination is disclosed by the BBC Radio 4 programme Costing The Earth, broadcast in the UK on Thursday.

Ominous decade

Concern about pollution of the Arctic by a range of chemicals, including PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and DDT, is not new.

Scientists at the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) in Tromso told the BBC those compounds were a gradually diminishing problem.

Man with bear cub by ice hole   NOAA
Only 11% of cubs live to 15 or more
(Image by Noaa)

But levels of the brominated flame retardants (BFRs) were rising, in bears, seals, foxes and glaucous gulls.

Geir Wing Gabrielsen has been carrying out research for 20 years in Svalbard, the archipelago half-way between Norway and the North Pole.

He told the programme: "Levels of these brominated compounds are three times higher in Canadian seals than they were 10 years ago.

"In Svalbard, the bear cub survival rate is half what you find in Canada and Alaska.

"There, about 42% of the bears live to the age of 15 or more. In Svalbard the figure is 11%."

Egg advice

Geir Wing Gabrielsen is also concerned about pollution in seabirds' eggs. He and his colleagues have extended their research this year from colonies in northern Norway to Svalbard, Russia's Kola peninsula, and the Faeroe islands.

He told BBC News Online: "We've found high levels of PCBs, dioxins and some of the new contaminants in the eggs.

Three gulls' eggs in nest   NOAA
Gulls' eggs are best avoided
(Image by Noaa)

"On Bear Island, just to the south of Svalbard, we found dead and dying gulls with PCB levels in their brains a hundred times higher than in healthy birds.

"Some people in mainland Norway are very fond of the eggs. But eating a single one can increase your body burden of these organic pollutants by 10%. We're advising children and women of child-bearing age not to eat any."

BFRs are used in television sets, car interiors, computers and some fabrics. Dr Hans Wolkers, a toxicologist at NPI, said their concentrations in the environment were doubling every five years.

Double-edged sword

He told Costing the Earth: "They've not been tested. They were a blessing, and really did save a lot of lives.

"But we may face effects similar to those we saw with PCBs. I call them the PCBs of the future, and at NPI we really think they should be restricted."

Gwynne Lyons, of WWF, the global environment campaign, told the programme: "The BFRs certainly should ring alarm bells.

"They've been shown to affect behaviour in laboratory animals, particularly brain development, and that sort of effect on learning seems to get worse as the animal ages.

"I think we should be incredibly careful about these chemicals. They may upset brain development in children."

Dr Kit Kovacs of NPI is worried at what the BFRs may be doing already. She said: "For Arctic peoples that are eating marine mammals, it's a very serious concern.

"The level of pollutants in mothers' milk in Greenland is a horrific concern there, and to the broader global community. They're ingesting highly polluted food, and producing highly polluted milk."

Costing the Earth is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2100 BST on 26 September, 2002 and will be streamed on this website.

See also:

01 Sep 00 | Science/Nature
09 Jul 02 | Europe
15 May 02 | Science/Nature
24 Jul 01 | Health
Internet links:


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Science/Nature stories are at the foot of the page.


E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Science/Nature stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |
Programmes