Studies uncover risks and threats to Arctic inhabitant's health that might be due to contaminants brought by warmer air and sea water currents resulting from climate change
People living in Arctic areas can be more sensitive to pollutants due to their genetics, says researcherArja Rautio at the Centre for Arctic Medicine in theUniversity of Oulu, Finland. This is unfortunate since the northernmost areas of Europe are receiving more harmful chemicals. Scientists believe climate change may be a culprit as air and water mass movements push some of these undesirable chemicals towards the Arctic. "In real life, people are exposed to lots of chemicals," says Rautio, who leads studies into the human health effects from contaminants and the influence of climate change in a EU-funded project called ArcRisk, "and I think the people of the north are exposed to higher levels than for example the general population in Europe."
Many new contaminants like fluorinated and brominated compounds and bisphenol A can act on hormones and so have impacts on human health. But seeing an effect on humans, at the population level, could take ten or even 20 years, especially in the case of cancer, she adds. This is why ArcRisk has established a database containing data on concentration levels and trends of contaminants in humans. The project team analysed frozen blood samples collected in Norway in 1978, 1986, 1995 and 2008 for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlorinated pesticides and polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs).
The main challenge that project scientists struggle with is to disentangle the effects of contaminant chemicals from what we do in our everyday lives. "We know that dioxins can lead to more diabetes and high blood pressure," says Rautio, "but there are many other confounding factors. We are changing our diet and many of us are less active and those lifestyle choices can also increase the risk of diseases like diabetes." The results of the project are due to be presented at a conference of Arctic Frontiers in Tromsø, Norway, in January 2014.
Previous studies have also struggled with disentangling contaminants effects when trying to understand their impact on health. There are uncertainties between the chemicals and direct health impacts because people are exposed to so many chemicals simultaneously, cautions biologist Thomas Zoeller at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA. Besides, the human population is genetically variable and may react differently to the chemicals and we don't even know which of the chemicals affect us.