27: Pollution- Chernobyl, noise and heavy metals

By now most of us have probably seen a video about a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose, or dead whales with bellies full of fishing nets and plastic. Plastic pollution is a huge problem across the planet, and the Arctic is no exception. Even though there are only a few people living there, and so making little waste, ocean currents carry a lot of plastic and rubbish from other more populated areas into the north. Plastic is not the only kind of pollution affecting the Arctic though, and it’s not only the waters that are being polluted. This week we’ll be taking a look at some of the other kinds of pollution, from radioactivity to drugs to heavy metals, and what their impact is. Perhaps not the cheeriest of subjects, but there will be at least one good news story nestled in here!

Pollution is an issue everywhere, but rubbish and plastic aren’t the only kind. Picture: Miran Rijavec / Flickr

Pollution

So what is pollution? It’s definition is a bit grainy, but it is basically the addition of any substance (solid, liquid, gas) or form of energy (heat, sound, radioactivity etc..) to an environment faster that it is gotten rid of, either by being decomposed, diluted or stored in a harmless form. So if you chuck an apple core out your window, it’ll take about 2 months to decompose. If you do that once a year, then that’s fine, but if you do it every week your apple cores are accumulating faster than they are decomposing so you are polluting. An apple core is still relatively benign- apart from attracting some flies, rats and odours it’s unlikely to destroy the environment in the short run. There are some forms of pollution however, which can have a pretty bad effect on the environment and its inhabitants.

The Arctic is also experiencing pollution issues. Picture: Keith Levit/Shutterstock

Heavy metals

Heavy metals (which means nearly all metals) are naturally found within our environment in the earth’s crust, scattered within rocks or found in small amounts in soils. Many are important basic nutrients which we actually need in our bodies so they function properly, like iron and zinc. Some are reasonably harmless in their natural form, like gold, copper and tin, whilst others are really quite poisonous, like lead and mercury. However, like most things in life everything must be in moderation, and even the harmless metals can start to cause problems when they are in too high a concentration.

The metals we use for everything from golf clubs to circuit boards in phones are processed metals which form a solid structure. As long as they don’t belong to the poisonous category (e.g mercury and arsenic) they are once again not too much of an issue. However, these metals first have to be extracted from the ground through the messy process of mining. The rocks in which they are bound up are broken apart, and dust and debris flies everywhere. Much of the metal is collected and processed, but plenty of tiny particles remain in the ‘waste’ stones that have been broken apart, this waste being known as mine tailings. This then increases the amount of these metals that are now exposed to the open environment rather than being locked in the earth’s crust, and by finding their way into soils as small particles they can be consumed by plants and animals in the area. In high concentrations in the body, these metals can cause mutations, poisoning and brain and nerve damage, which can in high doses can lead to plants, animals and even humans being killed.

The Arctic is home to some of the world’s largest mines, from Red Dog Zinc mine in Alaska, to Kiruna Iron mine in Sweden. This means that there is a potential for a lot of poisoning of the natural environment. If proper care is taken to clean up the debris then some of these issues can be avoided, though these clean up operations can be tricky, trying to hunt down microscopic particles, and for more remote mines sometimes they decided it’s just easier to not bother…

An area near Bagacay Mine in the Philippines. Plants are struggling to regrow there due to the metal content of the soil.

Persistent organic pollutants

Another pollution source is persistent organic pollutants (POPs)- organic substances that are really bad or slow at breaking down. This includes things like pesticides, pharmaceuticals and solvents, though you get naturally made ones too e.g some of the substances released in volcanic eruptions. POPs tend to be quite good at accumulating in fatty tissues where they don’t break down. Then they can start to travel and harm animals higher up in the food chain. For example if a little fish has 1g of POPs in it’s fat, and a bigger fish eats 10 of these little fish for lunch, it now has 10g of POPs in it’s fat. Then a seal might eat 5 big fish (now it has 50g of POPs), and then a polar bear might eat two seals, leading to 100g of POPs in its body. This process is called bioaccumulation. So while it might not seem like a big deal if a few tiny fish have a bit of pesticide in them, it might start to have knock on effects on the larger animals around them when the pesticides accumulate to higher concentrations.

Needless to say, POPs can be problematic. Some are toxic, some cause mutations and cancers, and some even cause population issues. For example many women take the contraceptive pill which is a POP. Small amounts of it can be released in urine after being taken, causing it to be washed into water systems. Here it can be consumed by fish, acting as a contraception for them and so stopping the local population from being able to breed!

Now, I did promise some good stories, so here is one. Learning about the impacts of POPs can and has caused us humans to change some of the substances we use, benefitting the environment. A famous example is DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), an insecticide used during World War 2 to protect against malaria and typhus, and later in agriculture. It is very toxic to some animals especially birds, thinning their egg shells which caused many chicks to die. It can also take 10-15 years to break down in the soil. When this was realised much of the world banned the use of DDT, and whilst there are still residues of it left, it is slowly but surely being broken down and reduced in the environment. Success!

Unfortunately there are many other POPs which are still in the environment, from agricultural pesticides and fertilisers to the remnants of pharmaceuticals and even illegal drugs once they have travelled through humans or livestock and into the waterways, so we still have a bit of work to do on this front.

Here is some toxic DDT being liberally sprayed on crops back in the day. Luckily it has now been banned, but many other toxic POPs are still being used.

Radioactivity

So far we have discussed substances that are polluting, but as mentioned at the start, energy can also be a pollutant. One example of this is radioactivity, the best known case being the Chernobyl disaster. In 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine had an accident in which large amounts of nuclear energy was released. Some people were instantly killed, and others quickly developed cancers, mutations in their cells caused by the radiation, and died within a few months. Outside of this it is thought that the health of many thousands of people in the area may have been compromised over time by the radioactive fallout. Acid rain caused by the radiation killed plants, and many animals in the area were mutated and killed by the radiation too.

The radioactive pollution didn’t just stay in the area, but was carried north west to parts of Scandinavia. Here many reindeer herders were not allowed to sell reindeer meat for a few years because of fears that their meat may be contaminated through the animals eating lichens with radioactive fallout on them.

History was repeated in 2015 with the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant in Japan which released radioactive contamination because of an earthquake. Luckily quicker effort was put into evacuating the area but large amounts of contaminated water got into the Pacific Ocean, deaths and injuries were caused and the clean-up operation is still ongoing today.

Deaths and debilitating conditions caused by pollution, both to animals and humans, are more than just statistics. This is a child victim of the Chernobyl disaster surrounded by family. Many people are still dying today or have a reduced life expectancy due to various kinds of pollution in our environment. Picture: Anatoli Kliashchuk/Sygma/Corbis

Noise

Though the areas around Chernobyl and Fukushima are to this day avoided by people, the wider impacts of the disasters are slowly lessening over time as the radiation gets dispersed. However, a new form of energy pollution is started to get some attention, and it may be one that is unexpected. This is noise pollution.

Of course it is always nicer to hear the birds sing rather than listen to rumbling traffic, but we don’t often think of noise as a form of pollution. Aside from causing stress to people who are sensitive to sound, such as people on the autistic spectrum, or generally creating uncomfortable environments for humans which can damage hearing, noise can severely affect many animals by disrupting their ability to navigate and detect things in their environment. For example noise can stop prey from being able to hear predators, reducing their ability to escape, and crabs and whales underwater have been seen to struggle to communicate with one another due to the noises of ships. Very high levels of noise pollution under water has even led some whales to beach themselves, dying in an attempt to escape the loud sounds. 

Noise is different from what we have discussed so far, as it could be instantly stopped if we switched off boats, cars and machines, but the fact is that we don’t and so it is a persistent problem. This may become a growing problem in the Arctic where there are hopes to create a new busy shipping route over the top of Russia from China to Northern Scandinavia, meaning more ships and more noise in its oceans.

Infogram showing how the noise created by ships can cause disturbance to marine life. Picture: Marine insight

Finally we have the classic idea of pollution- plastic and rubbish in the environment. This can suffocate animals, be accidentally eaten but undigested by them filling their stomachs and causing them to starve, and when broken down small enough can cause hormonal changes within wildlife, occasionally preventing them from being able to breed. All the issues mentioned above are concerns worldwide. In the Arctic heavy metals and POPs are the main contaminants, and they take a long time to degrade so even if we stop releasing them into the environment now, it will take a while before they are no longer at harmful concentrations.

For people in the Arctic who hunt large predators, especially indigenous people, these food sources that historically have been incredibly nutritious and healthy are now a concern in case they are contaminated. It has even been seen that the Inuit in Canada and Greenland who hunt and eat polar bears have higher levels of toxic contaminants in their blood and breast milk compared to those on different diets because of them bio accumulating contaminants which originate in little fish in the sea.

Whilst it takes a long time for these materials to break down, that simply means we have to reduce or stop our use of them as soon as possible, before too much contamination seeps into our food systems, destroys wildlife and creates a legacy of pollution in our soils, oceans and air that could take decades or centuries to eliminate. Banning DDT was a good step in that direction, now we just need to take a few steps more!

For more info:

Official statement on the chemicals that are concerning in the Arctic

More on Arctic Pollution

Music: kongano.com

Cover image: discoveringthearctic

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