U.S. Hazardous to Health?

Canada's Inuits say pollution from Harrisburg and other places is hurting them

Fellows Spring 2001

By Korey Capozza

June 06, 2009

IQALUIT, Canada - From her window overlooking Iqaluit's harbor, Sheila Watt-Cloutier can see hunters heading out into the vast Arctic tundra in search of seal, caribou and walrus. Muted sunlight casts a pink glow on a white expanse of snow-covered land and frozen sea.

The northern Canadian territory of Nunavut appears pristine, largely untouched by industrial development. But an invisible hazard threatens the well-being of the Inuit people here - their environment is being tainted by toxic chemicals from the United States.

Now the Inuit are pressuring American industries to reduce pollution. One of their chief targets is a municipal waste incinerator in Harrisburg, Pa., that emits dioxin and other toxic elements.

Harrisburg officials say their incinerator cannot be accurately pinpointed as a culprit for Arctic pollution. They say that the city's plant has reduced its emissions, and that the Inuits' complaints are based on old data.

The battle here is part of a global effort to eliminate "persistent organic pollutants" that can linger in the environment for many years. Last month, 127 countries, including the United States and Canada, adopted a treaty to ban 12 highly toxic chemicals, including dioxin and PCBs. President Bush has said he will urge ratification of the treaty by the Senate.

Wind and weather patterns can carry pollutants from the United States to the Arctic, where they accumulate in the food chain and are ingested by the Inuit people in the fish and sea mammals they eat.

"Sea mammals are like vacuum cleaners in our oceans that suck up this pollution," said Paul Connet, a chemistry professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.

Studies show that Inuit women's breast milk contains six times more toxics such as PCBs than the level found in southern Canadian women.

"We are only 150,000 Inuit in the world and we've become the net recipients of these persistent organic pollutants," said Watt-Cloutier, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an international advocacy group.

Armed with new studies that blame a few U.S. sources for much of the dioxin in Nunavut, Inuit leaders are asking U.S. plants to stop the flow of pollution from their smokestacks to Nunavut.

Last year, Barry Commoner, an environmental activist and Queens College researcher, authored a study that attempted to track dioxin from 44,091 sources in the United States to the far north. The report, commissioned by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, concluded that a dozen sources, most of them in an industrial belt between Nebraska and Pennsylvania, were responsible for most of the dioxin that ends up in Nunavut.

The report singled out the Harrisburg facility as a prime suspect because it emits a relatively large quantity of dioxin and it is in a location where weather patterns can sporadically move its pollution northward. Dioxins are chemicals released by the burning of chlorinated wastes such as plastics.

"As it so happens, the atmospheric system near Harrisburg is a strong one," said Commoner, who used NOAA data from 1996 and 1997 to plot the path of dioxin emissions from sources such as waste incinerators, cement kilns and power plants. The study concluded that dioxin from Harrisburg can reach Nunavut in just a few days if it does not encounter any storm patterns.

The vast majority of dioxin emitted from America's "rust belt" stays in the United States. Much pollution from the Midwest, for example, is carried east to the Mid-Atlantic and New England states by prevailing eastward jet-stream currents. But, according to a report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, an international consortium of Arctic researchers, some pollution moves northward, in occasional bursts of high levels of contaminants that are not efficiently removed by rain and snow.

"All pollution at the North Pole can be traced to the midlatitudes. There are no sources in the Arctic that I am aware of," said Bob McLeod, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

EPA measurements show that the 29-year-old Harrisburg municipal incinerator was the largest dioxin producer in the United States when it was last tested in 1996.

Commoner's study concluded the Harrisburg plant was the second-largest source of dioxin in Nunavut (the first was an Ames, Iowa, facility) and the largest source for the tiny whaling village of Qikiqtarjuaq on Baffin Island.

Residents of the 480-person community weren't surprised to hear that dioxin is seeping into their food chain; Qikiqtarjuaq was the first village in Nunavut that scientists studied for contamination back in 1985. The results of those early investigations were published in a report by Health and Welfare Canada in 1989 which showed that 63 percent of the children in Qikiqtarjuaq had blood levels of PCBs that exceeded Health Canada's "tolerable" guidelines.

Research by the Center for Indigenous People's Nutrition and Environment at McGill University in Montreal found that the organochlorine exposure level in 15 Nunavut communities was up to 100 times what Health Canada recommends as a "daily tolerable intake."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, dioxin and PCBs are carcinogens associated with learning disabilities, hormone disruption and immune-system impairment.

Despite the documented levels of toxins here, it remains unclear if migratory pollutants from the south are causing illness in Nunavut.

Several studies have shown that Inuit infants suffer from recurring infections. Some researchers suspect the trend indicates immune-system impairment. The exact cause is difficult to pinpoint, though, because alcoholism, smoking, and drug use are widespread in Inuit communities.

"Chest infections are really common here, but that may have more to do with heavy smoking," said Louise Villamen, an Australian nurse who runs the Qikiqtarjuaq health clinic.

A 1996 study by researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit found memory and language deficits among children whose mothers ate the largest amounts of PCB-laden fish from the U.S. Great Lakes during pregnancy. Now the authors of the study are replicating their research in Nunavut to see if Inuit children display similar impairments.

The prospect that the food the Inuit have eaten for centuries may now be harmful alarms local residents. At stake is their entire way of life, says Watt-Cloutier, who grew up following the migration of caribou in Northern Quebec. "I'm very connected to my 'country food.' It's what sustains me."

In February, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference sent a letter to Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed asking him to consider the plight of the Inuit in relation to the Harrisburg incinerator.

According to the EPA, the Harrisburg incinerator generates an annual average of 1,170 nanograms of dioxin per dry standard cubic meter (ng/dscm), an amount significantly above the EPA limit of 60 ng/dscm for large waste incinerators. Relatively speaking, the facility's current emissions are a vast improvement from four years ago, when it emitted an average of 7,000 ng/dscm.

In 1997 the EPA set an interim dioxin limit of 1,500 ng/dscm for the Harrisburg facility. Two years later, new guidelines imposed by the Clean Air Act required the incinerator to upgrade its equipment to meet tougher emission standards for dioxin and heavy metals, acid gases and particulate matter by Dec. 19, 2000. The facility had the choice of either fitting the incinerator with newer, more efficient control equipment, downsizing to operate as a smaller facility, or shutting down. When it failed to meet the standards, the incinerator shut down on Dec. 18.

In an agreement by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the EPA and the City of Harrisburg, the incinerator was able to reopen on Jan. 9 by reducing the amount of garbage it burned to qualify as a "small" incinerator.

"We've negotiated an interim rate of 1,500 ng/dscm, based on what we've seen at these kind of facilities nationally," said David Sternberg, spokesman for the EPA Mid-Atlantic region.

Critics of the agreement say it enabled the incinerator to continue producing unacceptable amounts of dioxin. "This one incinerator is putting out the equivalent of several European countries' worth of dioxin. An emission level of 1,170 is outrageously high," said Connet, who studies the movement of incinerator–generated dioxin through the food chain.

Harrisburg officials say the amount of dioxin produced at the facility is safe. The mayor's office sent a reply to Iqaluit that denied the incinerator's involvement in Nunavut's pollution problem.

"The emissions data that were used in Commoner's computer model were outdated and inaccurate," said Dan Lispi, assistant to the mayor for special projects. "I can assure you that . . . in the near future there will be a retrofit or a shutdown of the facility that will eliminate any speculation that the Harrisburg facility could be a source of dioxin in the Arctic Circle," Lispi said in his letter to the Inuit commission.

Given the incinerator's history of dioxin emissions, Harrisburg was a logical place to start looking for the source of Nunavut's troubles, said Michael Fiorentino, staff attorney with the Clean Air Council in Philadelphia. He said the Commoner study "put the Harrisburg incinerator on the map as a polluter of international concern. This facility has been notorious for violating the air-pollution-control laws at the state and federal level for years."

Although her world is far from Harrisburg, Sheila Watt-Cloutier in Iqaluit believes the connection between the two places is closer than many realize.

"We are the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the world," she says. "It's only a matter of time before the rest of the world is impacted just as heavily."