WASHINGTON – A major source of chemical contamination in the Arctic turns out to be bird droppings.
Wind currents and human activities long have been blamed for fouling the pristine Arctic. But a study by a group of Canadian researchers found that the chemical pollution in areas frequented by seabirds can be many times higher than in nearby regions.
A team of researchers led by Jules Blais of the University of Ottawa studied several ponds below the cliffs at Cape Vera on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic.
Scientists reported in Friday’s issue of the journal Science that the ponds, which receive falling guano from a colony of northern fulmars that nest on the cliffs, have highly elevated amounts of chemicals.
“These contaminants had been washed into the ocean, where we generally assumed they were no longer affecting terrestrial ecosystems. Our study shows that sea birds, which feed in the ocean but then come back to land, are returning not only with food for their young but with contaminants as well. The contaminants accumulate in their bodies and are released on land,” Blais said.
Research team member John Smol of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, said “the effect is to elevate concentrations of pollutants such as mercury and DDT to as much as 60 times that of areas not influenced by seabird populations.”
Chemicals such as PCB and DDT are no longer being released into the environment in North America, Blais noted, but were designed to last a long time and are doing so.
In addition, he said, other chemicals still in use are toxic and also can last in the environment.
Perhaps the lessons learned from PCBs should be applied to other hazardous chemicals too, Blais said.