Arctic - Toxics | WWF

Arctic - Toxics

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Killer whale (Orcinus orca) surfacing near Lofoten, Norway.
© WWF-Canon / WWF Sweden


WWF's Arctic Programme produces advocacy, communications, and marketing materials on toxic contamination in the Arctic to raise public awareness on toxics issues and to influence chemical policy.

We support field-based research to monitor and assess pollutants in the Arctic and we promote capacity-building and advocacy work with other organizations.

Our aim is to help achieve the Toxics Programme and Barents Sea Ecoregion conservation targets and milestones.


Many pollutants of concern in the Arctic were not produced or ever used in the Arctic. Instead, industrial and agricultural chemicals from other areas of the world travel great distances via air and water currents to finally end up in the remote Arctic. In fact, some chemicals are found in higher concentrations in the Arctic then in the countries where they are actually made and used.

There is a tendency for many chemicals to move from warmer to colder climates. The so-called "Persistent Organic Pollutants" (POPs) are highly volatile, man-made chemicals that easily evaporate into the air but are slow to degrade. When air masses carrying these contaminants reach the Arctic region the "cold-condensation effect" occurs, this is when air contaminants condense and are carried to the ground in rain or snow. Strong winds are capable of moving contaminants across the world in just days. Pollutants are also transported to the Arctic via ocean and river currents, melting sea-ice, and migratory birds. Long, dark winters and cold temperatures inhibit the breakdown of chemicals in the Arctic. In addition to POPs, other contaminants of concern include heavy metals and radionuclides.

Plants and wildlife take up toxins through contaminated air, soil, water, and food. Arctic animals, such as polar bears, whales and seals, are long-lived and have high levels of fat to insulate them against the cold climate. Many toxins accumulate in fat and animals with a long life span have time to build up high levels of toxins in their bodies. As animals use their fat reserves during periods of hibernation, toxins become more concentrated in blood, organs, and their remaining fat. Toxin levels increase moving up the food chain (a process called biomagnification) and are highest in top predators, such as polar bears and wolves. Humans are at the very top of the food chain and Arctic indigenous peoples are exposed to contaminants through a traditional diet.

There is substantial evidence that Arctic peoples and wildlife contain many toxic contaminants in their bodies. However, further studies are needed to determine if, or to what extent, these contaminants cause adverse health effects in both humans and wildlife. Research thus far shows that problems related to reproduction, hormone function, development, and immunity are of high concern.


1) Produce advocacy, communications and marketing materials on Arctic toxics issues.

2) Develop and manage Arctic toxics research and field projects, particularly on polar bear research and a field project for the Barents Sea Ecoregion.

3) Capacity building and community-based advocacy work with other groups, including Arctic indigenous peoples’ organizations, to achieve Toxics Programme targets and milestones.

4) Contribute to Toxics Programme efforts to promote and implement international agreements on toxics through local, national, or multi-national initiatives and to increase the number of chemicals targeted under the Stockholm Convention.

5) Contribute to the overall achievement of the Barents Sea Ecoregion Conservation Strategy.


1) Compile and prepare research, reports, and press releases on Arctic toxics for advocacy, communications, and marketing use by WWF.

2) Develop and submit proposals for field projects in the Barents Sea Ecoregion.

3) Establish and maintain good working relations with key scientific institutions, governments, organizations, and individuals working on the issue of toxic contamination in the Arctic.

4) Advocacy work in regional fora to achieve milestones for the Toxics Programme.

5) Support toxics fundraising activities.


We support implementation of the Stockholm POPs Convention, which went into effect on May 17, 2004, and bans or severely restricts global use of 12 of the most hazardous chemicals.

In addition, by 2014, we would like to eliminate or reduce at least 100 of the most hazardous industrial chemicals and pesticides, primarily focused on priority chemicals of concern.

We also want to strengthen and pass the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of CHemicals) legislation, which will be voted on in the European Union in 2005-2006. REACH will shift the burden of proving a chemical is safe from governments to industry. REACH will also support the "precautionary principle", which means that measures should be taken to protect wildlife and humans from potentially harmful contaminants even when scientific uncertainty exists as to the adverse effects these chemicals may cause.


Stockholm POPs Convention went into effect on May 17, 2004.

The report “The tip of the iceberg: Chemical contamination of the Arctic” was launched in Brussels on February 16-17, 2005. The report launch included a day of meetings with Members of European Parliament or representatives for Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Canada. The report launch also included presentations in Parliament by WWF and an invited speaker on wildlife and human health effects related to chemical contamination.

Recent media releases generated extensive coverage:

(See the full text of these media releases and a full list of press coverage in the attachments section for this project).

-August 10, 2005 media release on fluorinated chemicals in wildlife from Greenland and the Faroe Islands

-February 17, 2005 media release on the launch of the Arctic toxics report.

-December 16, 2004 media release on Norwegian politicians' blood-testing results in support of DetoX.

-November 17, 2004 media release on launch of the Persistant Toxic Substances (PTS) project results.

-September 13, 2004 media release on health effects in Norwegian and Canadian polar bears linked to chemical exposures.

-May 31, 2004 media release on the "deca" flame retardant being found in polar bears and gulls in the remote Norwegian Arctic.

WWF's September 13, 2004 media release led to a radio interview by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and National Science Foundation with the polar bear researcher who WWF collaborated with.

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