Tagish too polluted for pollution research

Scientists testing Arctic air for contaminants were skunked by local Yukon pollution. In 1992, Environment Canada set up an air research station in Tagish. "And we saw high concentrations of things like DDT,"

Scientists testing Arctic air for contaminants were skunked by local Yukon pollution.

In 1992, Environment Canada set up an air research station in Tagish.

“And we saw high concentrations of things like DDT,” said Environment Canada scientist Hayley Hung.

But after a year of operation, the research was polluted by toxic smoke.

“The settlement started burning things and we were swamped by chemicals we were not looking for,” said Hung.

Like many Yukon communities, Tagish burns its trash.

The toxic smoke ruined Environment Canada’s air-contaminants research.

So, the research station was moved to Little Fox Lake.

By tracking air contaminants all over the Arctic, scientists hope to chart global air currents.

Some countries are still using dangerous chemicals like DDT.

And it’s good to measure contamination in the Arctic because air has a tendency to flow toward the poles, said Hung, who was visiting the territory from Toronto.

The DDT in the territory most likely came from the western US and Asia, she said. Chlordane, which has been linked to prostate and breast cancers, was also discovered in Yukon air.

Both chemicals are part of an extremely toxic group known as “the dirty dozen,” said Hung.

In 1995, these chemicals were banned in 50 countries, including Canada, thanks to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

But the chemicals are still showing up in the territory.

“Even if it hasn’t been used since the 1970s, DDT could sit in the soil for the next 20 years without going away,” said Hung.

And climate change could release some of these toxic chemicals, she said.

Chemicals that have been held in ocean water may start escaping into the air when sea ice melts, said Hung.

Or vice versa.

Chemicals in the air may also start leaching into the ice-free water.

“We’re still looking at the data to figure out which way it’s going to go,” she said.

Forest fires also trigger chemical emissions.

Five years ago, blazing Yukon forests spewed pollution across the Atlantic.

An Arctic research station in Norway measured PCBs coming from the Yukon fire, said Hung.

There is still a lot scientists don’t know about how chemicals travel.

The Little Fox Lake research station has even detected chemicals in the territory that shouldn’t be here, said Hung.

“There are some chemicals that are not supposed to be able to transport, but are here,” she said.

Endosulfan is one of them.

A synthetic substance that imitates the effect of estrogens, endosulfan can cause reproductive and developmental damage in both animals and humans, and has been labelled as “highly acutely toxic” by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The Stockholm Convention is considering adding endosulfan to its list of banned chemicals, said Hung.

Part of the Arctic research is to see how effective the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants has been, she added.

“We haven’t seen anything yet,” said Hung.

Data was collected in 2002, but after one year the research station ran out of money.

Thanks to International Polar Year initiatives, research was restarted in 2007 and has enough funding to run until the summer of 2009, said Hung.

“And I hope we get more money to keep it going.”

A lot of the chemicals are already in the environment, and there’s not a lot we can do, said Hung.

“But we have to be responsible for what we use and look at the properties of these chemicals.

“Canada should be a leader,” she said.

Contact Genesee Keevil at


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