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Hearing Sparks Call for Environmental Justice in Alaska

By Eddy Ball
March 2010

Vi Waghiyi
ACAT spokesperson Vi Waghiyi, above, was one of a group of ACAT members who met with NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., in 2009. (Photo courtesy of ACAT and Vi Waghiyi)

Cover photo of Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants report showing upright whale bones
The cover photo for the report for delegates to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)( Exit NIEHS underscores ACAT concerns about the hidden effects on Arctic populations of pollutants from the lower 48 states. (Photo courtesy of ACAT)

ACAT logo
(Photo courtesy of ACAT)

In a press release timed to coincide with a hearing on chemical safety Feb. 4 (see related story(, spokespersons for an NIEHS grantee called for action on circumpolar atmospheric pollution in Alaska.

Native leaders working with Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT)( Exit NIEHS pointed to the effects of persistent toxic chemicals that drift northward on wind and water currents from where they are used in the lower 48 states. They urged chemical management reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) by the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics, and Environmental Health.

"Indigenous Arctic communities are suffering the most from chemicals emitted in the lower 48 states," said Vi Waghiyi, a St. Lawrence Island Yupik and ACAT Environmental Health and Justice Program director. "Because many industrial and commercial chemicals are long lasting and persistent in the atmosphere, they are in our traditional foods and affecting our health and the health of our children. We are calling on Congress and the Obama Administration to affect policy to regulate chemicals to end the 'contamination without consent' on our people from distant sources."

According to ACAT spokespersons, the Yupik people of St. Lawrence Island, and rural communities across the state of Alaska, are concerned about health problems associated with persistent organic pollutants present in their air, water, and food. This past fall, a delegation of local leaders and elders from the island communities of Savoonga and Gambell traveled to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness of the dire health effects in their communities.

St. Lawrence Island residents have experienced alarming rates of disease including cancers, diabetes, reproductive health problems, thyroid disease, nervous and immune system disorders, and learning disabilities. These toxins are particularly prevalent among those who have used the Northeast Cape area for traditional hunting, fishing, and food gathering, according to the spokespersons.

A 2005 NIEHS-funded community-based participatory research study( Exit NIEHS published by ACAT demonstrated that the people of St. Lawrence Island have elevated polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in their blood, at six to nine times the U.S. average. As part of its grant activities, ACAT also prepared two reports for delegates to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)( Exit NIEHS in 2009: Lindane: Pharmaceutical and Agricultural Alternatives and Persistent Organic Pollutants in the Arctic.

"While we are not physically near the action in Washington, D.C., Congress has a responsibility to address the needs of tribal governments throughout the United States, especially remote Alaska," Jane Kava said in the press release. Kava is a St. Lawrence Island community health Researcher and mayor of Savoonga, Alaska.

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