Poisoning the North

“Indigenous people have become the industrialized world’s lab rats.” -Rachel Carson As early as 1945 Rachel Carson was becoming…

“Indigenous people have

become the industrialized world’s lab rats.”

-Rachel Carson

As early as 1945 Rachel Carson was becoming increasingly alarmed at the amount of deadly toxins being pumped into the earth, oceans, and atmosphere.

The rather simple logic of “we are what we eat” lead her to correctly assume that all life on Earth was being poisoned as well. In 1962 she published her landmark study Silent Spring.

Last year, Marla Cone, environmental journalist with the Los Angeles Times, alerted us to yet another horror: the poisoning has increased significantly and it is greatly more pronounced in the High Arctic.

Because of that, native people are taking it hardest.

Carson ended her classic study with a call for increased funding of research into toxins and how they are entering the food chain.

She also insisted there are other reliable and highly effective ways to reduce pests and noxious plants without DDT and other deadly chemicals.

While there was some movement to heed her call during the last half of the 20th century, many felt it was too little to late.

Cone’s work, Silent Snow, is evidence of just that.

Because of the way planet Earth works — how the wind blows over the surface and how small animals eat larger ones — the highest concentration of DDT and PCBs end up in the High North and in the bodies of native people who live off the land and the sea.

In fact, Cone found that some native mothers “carried such a potent brew of chemicals in their bodies they could be declared hazardous waste.”

Cone laments, “The Arctic’s indigenous people have become the industrialized world’s lab rats, the voluntary subjects of an accidental human experiment that reveals what happens when a boundless brew of chemicals builds up in an environment.”

In the min-1980s southern technology introduced yet another toxic substance just now beginning to show up in high concentrations among northern indigenous people: polybrominated diphenyl ethers — PBDEs.

Used as an effective flame retardant, residual PBDEs were first discovered in rivers in Sweden. Scientists knew it would not be long before it found its way into the diet of northern peoples.

According to Cone, PBDEs are found in polar bears, seals, killer whales and most songbirds. It now shows up in breast milk of Arctic women.

What is most alarming for Cone is that PBDEs are showing up in rates “unseen since the PCB’s and DDT of the 1960s.”

One would think in light of Carson’s work a half decade earlier, we would have learned something about the use of these potentially deadly toxins. Clearly we have not.

Carson opened Silent Spring with a quote from Albert Schweitzer:

“Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall.

He will end by destroying the Earth.”

Cone is equally pessimistic. “Scientists are dismayed that society has learned nothing from the toxic legacies of the past and appears destined to repeat them over and over. Only the names of the chemicals change.”

What I find most discouraging in both Silent Spring and Silent Snow is that marginalized people suffer most from the toxic sludge we are pumping into the world.

Poor folks who live closest to the manufacturing plants that make the chemicals and indigenous people who live off the land are now at the highest risk.

Those at highest risk are at the lowest rung of the political and economic ladder. They along with polar bears, ringed seals, whales and Arctic foxes are simply without a voice.

And, according to Swedish scientist Äke Bergman, “for a variety of reasons — political, scientific, and legal — it is harder than ever to ban a chemical in the United States (where most of these toxins are produced).”

But while Carson and Cone ended their research on rather somber notes I, on the other hand, remain more upbeat. People tied directly to the land have unspeakable resolve. Their willingness and their ability to adapt are beyond compare.

And, being the believer I am in evolution, I always find solace in Charles Darwin. Evolution applies equally to the world of ideas and sensibilities.

In his 1874 publication of The Descent of Man, Darwin observed, “Originally each man had regard only for himself and those of a very narrow circle about him; later, he came to regard more and more not only the welfare, but the happiness of all his fellows; then his sympathies became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed, and other members of society, and finally to the lower animals.”

Darwin is absolutely correct in assuming we evolve successfully by caring intimately about the world we live in.

I believe there will be an outcry of support for native people of the North that will result in a direct action campaign to prohibit the use of highly toxic chemicals in the industrialized world.

Carson is also right on target when she says: “In contemplating the exceeding beauty of the earth people have found calmness and courage.”

Cone’s work has given us the facts about the slow poising of the high Arctic. The rest is now up to us.

Where will we find the courage?