Coal burning polluted Arctic, affected human health

August 20th, 2008 - 2:15 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Aug 20 (IANS) Coal burning contaminated the Arctic and potentially affected human health and ecosystems in and around the polar regions, according to a new study.Detailed measurements from a Greenland ice core showed pollutants from burning coal -toxic heavy metals like cadmium, thallium and lead - were much higher than expected. The catch, however, was the pollutants weren’t higher at the times when researchers expected peaks.

“Conventional wisdom held that toxic heavy metals were higher in the sixties and seventies, the peak of industrial activity in Europe and North America and certainly before implementation of Clean Air Act controls in the early 1970s,” said Joe McConnell, lead researcher and director of Desert Research Institute’s (DRI) Ultra-Trace Chemistry Laboratory.

“But it turns out pollution in southern Greenland was higher 100 years ago when North American and European economies ran on coal, before the advent of cleaner, more efficient coal burning technologies and the switch to oil and gas-based economies,” McConnell said.

In fact, the research showed pollutants were two to five times higher at the beginning of the previous century than today. Pollution levels in the early 1900s also represented a 10-fold increase from preindustrial levels.

Continuous, monthly and annually averaged pollution records taken from the Greenland ice core dating from 1772-2003 produced the results. And although data showed heavy-metal pollution in the North Atlantic sector of the Arctic is substantially lower today than a century ago, McConnell and his research associate Ross Edwards said there is still cause for concern.

“Contamination of other sectors may be increasing because of the rapid coal-driven growth of Asian economies,” they wrote. They argued the consequence may be greater risk to the food chain as toxic heavy metals from industrial activities in Asian nations are transported through the atmosphere and deposited in the polar regions.

The research was reported this week in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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