COAL-BURNING, primarily in North America and Europe, contaminated the Arctic and potentially affected human health and ecosystems in and around Earth’s polar regions a century ago, according to new research.
Detailed measurements from a Greenland ice core showed that pollutants from burning coal – the toxic heavy metals, cadmium, thallium and lead – were much higher than expected. The team of American scientists had expected to find the heavy metals peak around the 1960s-70s, just before clean air acts were implemented in many northern nations.
Joe McConnell, lead researcher and director of DRI’s Ultra-Trace Chemistry Laboratory, said of the findings: “It turns out pollution in southern Greenland was higher 100 years ago when North American and European economies ran on coal, before the advent of cleaner, more efficient coal-burning technologies and the switch to oil&gas-based economies.”
In fact, the research showed that pollutants were two to five times higher at the beginning of the previous century than today. Pollution levels in the early-1900s also represented a tenfold increase from pre-industrial levels. Continuous, monthly and annually averaged pollution records taken from the Greenland ice core dating from 1772 to 2003 were analysed. Although data showed that heavy-metal pollution in the North Atlantic sector of the Arctic is substantially lower today than a century ago, the scientists have warned of another toxic wave. They say contamination may once again rise because of the rapid coal-driven growth of Asian economies.
And they suggest that food-chain contamination through toxic-metal absorption from both the environment and from consumption of contaminated food sources could make its way to humans, who feed on long-lived land and marine animals.