New pollutants increasing in Svalbard

The levels of new persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are increasing in polar bears, glaucous gulls and other arctic species, while the level of “old” POPs like PCBs and DDT is decreasing in the Arctic, shows a new report by the Surveillance Group for the Barents Sea.


Photo: Odd Harald Hansen

Scientists at the Norwegian Polar Institute, together with colleagues from several other research institutes, have published the report.

– We have registered an increase of the levels of new POPs, like brominated flame retardants and perfluorinated compounds, in arctic species like polar bears, glaucous gulls and several others, says Geir Wings Gabrielsen, head of the ecotoxicology programme at the Norwegian Polar Institute.

High POP levels are found particularly in predators at the top of the marine food web. The pollutants are distributed by ocean and air currents and end up in the marine food chains in the Arctic.

Polar bears, Arctic foxes, glaucous gulls, great black-backed gulls, great skuas and ivory gulls are some of the species with high levels of the new POPs, according to Dr. Gabrielsen.

In the report by the Monitoring Group, POPs are shown to affect the animals’ resistance towards infections and their reproductive ability. Scientists are alarmed by the results.

– Research has shown that POPs cause hormone changes, impaired immune system and change in animal behaviour. These new results confirm how serious the situation has become, says Geir Wing Gabrielsen.

On the other hand he is content that the report shows no high levels of POPs in terrestrial animals, like Svalbard reindeer and Svalbard rock ptarmigans. In conclusion, old POPs like PCBs and DDT are decreasing. The ringed seal is an example of a species with a pronounced decrease in the blood level of the old POPs PCBs and toxafan.

The reduction in old POPs is a result of the systematic work by governments in the 1980s and 1990s to reduce emissions and discharge of these compounds into the environment.