DRI researchers find a surprise in the Arctic

A Greenland ice core in the Arctic turned up some surprising results for Desert Research Institute researchers. Pollutants from coal burning measured much higher than expected. The real surprise was the pollutants—cadmium, thallium, lead—were higher 100 years ago, when western economies ran on coal and before the switch to an oil-and-gas economy. Scientists previously thought toxic heavy metals were higher in the 1960s and ‘70s, at the peak of industrial activity in North America and Western Europe.

“It’s not too surprising we’d see these pollutants associated with coal burning in the Arctic,” said DRI researcher Joe McConnell in an interview with the National Science Foundation.

While concentrations are lower today than in the past, McConnell says there’s still cause for concern. “Parts of Asia—China and India specifically—have rapidly growing economies, and those economies are being driven primarily by combustion of coal. So it’s quite likely the trend of these contaminants is the opposite direction in those parts of the world.”

Furthermore, these contaminants could enter the food chain of humans, especially those in the Arctic, due to bioconcentration, or the build up of pollutants in the body. (ex: a fish contaminated by toxic heavy metals is eaten by another fish or seal and finds its way into the human food chain.

McConnell said trapping the pollutants close to the source by using better burning technologies and scrubbers on power plants could help remedy the problem. “From my perspective,” he told the NSF, “a much better solution is to rely less heavily on fossil fuels, especially on coal because it is so dirty.”

The study is called “Coal Burning Leaves Toxic Heavy Metal Legacy in the Arctic” and was conducted by DRI with partial funding by the NSF. It’s published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.