Global mercury emissions could grow by 25 percent by 2020 if no action is taken to control them, posing a threat to polar bears, whales, seals and the Arctic communities who hunt those animals for food, an authoritative international study says.
The assessment by a scientific body set up by the eight Arctic rim countries also warns that climate change could worsen the problem, by releasing mercury stored for thousands of years in permafrost or promoting chemical processes that transform the substance into a more toxic form.
“It is of particular concern that mercury levels are continuing to rise in some Arctic species in large areas of the Arctic,” despite emissions reductions in nearby regions like Europe, North America and Russia, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) said.
Emissions have increased in other parts of the world, primarily in China, which is now the No. 1 mercury polluter, accounting for nearly half of total emissions, AMAP said.
Its report, Arctic Pollution 2011, was scheduled for release yesterday at a scientific conference in Copenhagen.
Another report released earlier this week at the meeting of nearly 400 scientists showed melting ice in the Arctic could help raise global sea levels by as much as 1.6m this century, much higher than earlier projections.
Both assessments will be handed to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the foreign ministers of Russia, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland at an Arctic Council meeting next week.
Polar bears, beluga whales and seals are among the species that have shown heightened levels of mercury in parts of Arctic Canada and Greenland, the report said. Meanwhile, mercury levels have dropped in other animals in the high north of Europe.
Danish researcher Rune Dietz, one of the lead authors of the study, said the impact is likely to vary across the Arctic region.
In eastern Greenland, melting ice may give polar bears easier access to the breeding grounds of seal species with high levels of mercury.
However, at Svalbard in northern Norway, less ice could strand polar bears on land, keeping them away from mercury-rich seafood and forcing them “to eat more plants and terrestrial animals,” Dietz said on Thursday.
Traces of mercury are found in almost all fish and shellfish. At certain levels, it can harm the developing nervous system of a fetus or young child if too much tainted seafood is consumed by the mother or child.
The WHO says there are higher rates of mental difficulties among children in parts of the world that rely primarily on fish.
Inuit communities in the Arctic are at risk because their traditional diet includes seal, whale and to a lesser extent polar bear — species that have accumulated high levels of mercury.
The AMAP report urged health authorities to communicate these risks to Arctic communities, but was cautious about offering dietary recommendations because switching to a Western diet can lead to other health problems.
Combined with a more “sedentary” Western lifestyle, no longer focused on hunting and fishing, “this new diet increases the risks of developing obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes and coronary heart disease,” AMAP said.
The report compiles findings from hundreds of published studies and builds on previous assessments in 1997 and 2002, which found that the pristine Arctic environment is polluted by industries in other parts of the globe.