Research scientist Derek Muir has spent decades researching and measuring contaminants in Arctic animals. (Facebook/Derek Muir)

Research scientist Derek Muir has spent decades researching and measuring contaminants in Arctic animals. (Facebook/Derek Muir)

Scientist awarded $100K for work on Arctic contaminants that led to ban

Derek Muir has received the $100,000 Weston Family Prize for his research that showed those carcinogens were able to move into the Arctic.

An Environment Canada scientist whose work on contaminants in the Arctic environment helped lead to global controls on toxic chemicals is getting an award.

Derek Muir has received the $100,000 Weston Family Prize for research that led to groundbreaking international restrictions on persistent organic pollutants. His findings showed those carcinogens were able to move into the Arctic and concentrate in the bodies of animals and people.

“It makes me feel that the science we were doing was very worthwhile,” Muir said. “It’s motivation to keep going with more chemical measurements in the Arctic, because the Arctic is a sentinel area.”

At one time, Canada’s Inuit carried some of the highest PCB levels in the world, up to 10 times the levels found in southern Canada. The chemical was even found in the breast milk of Inuit mothers.

A 2003 study found subtle but statistically significant nervous system and behavioural changes, possibly linked to PCBs, in Inuit babies.

The following year, at least partly due to the work of Muir and his colleagues, the Stockholm Convention came into effect. It limited or banned the use of a number of chemicals, including notorious poisons such as DDT.

By 2008, PCB levels in beluga, narwhal, walrus and ringed seal had fallen by an average of 43 per cent. Although it varied in different parts of the Arctic, the amount of the chemical Inuvialuit or Inuit people were exposed to dropped an average of 20 per cent over the previous decade.

Read more: Canadian physicist collects Nobel Prize

Read more: Canadian scientist names new beetle Jose Bautista

There are now 182 countries that have signed the convention, which regulates 27 chemicals.

So-called “legacy contaminants” remain top predators in the North. But now, Muir said, a new generation of chemicals is coming into play.

“We’re seeing new contaminants which we know are being used in consumer products and buildings and all sorts of … urban areas, and we see them appearing in the North.”

They include stain repellents, flame retardants and pharmaceuticals. A recent paper documented about 150 such compounds.

Muir said information on how the chemicals move and what effects they have on their own and in combination is needed.

Agreements such as the Stockholm Convention show the world can come together to address environmental problems, he said.

“The scientists were able to put results in the hands of people who were really motivated to take a managerial leap.”

Muir’s award was announced Wednesday, the day after an American science agency delivered another gloomy report card on the impact of climate change on the Arctic.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has concluded surface air temperatures in the Arctic continue to warm twice as fast as the rest of the globe. Air temperatures for the last five years have exceeded all previous records since 1900.

More Stockholm Conventions are needed, Muir said.

“We have better instrumental capacity and better knowledge than we had in the 1980s when I was starting. We’re in a much better position,” he said. “But I guess science needs to be translated more into action.”

Muir credited the Weston Foundation with funding much of the research that goes on today in the Canadian Arctic.

“They’ve really had an impact on northern science.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Emma Garriott is releasing her second album titled ‘Sad White Girl Angst.’ (Emma Garriott / Facebook photo)
North Island musician releases second album titled ‘Sad White Girl Angst’

“When you hear it, I want you to feel like your best friend in the whole world is sitting beside you’

Environment Canada has issued a special weather statement forecasting windy weather Sunday and Monday. (News Bulletin file photo)
More windy weather on the way for Vancouver Island

Environment Canada issues special weather statement for Victoria, east coast of Island, north Island

Jay Vaughn, Brian Pohto and Janet Pohto opened up the Island Sun’s tuna freezers for anyone worried about food thawing over the four-day power outage on Malcolm Island. (Christopher Hurst photo)
Community shines bright during power outage

Hardest hit areas on the North Island stepped up to keep neighbours warm and fed

(Dave Landine/Facebook)
VIDEO: Dashcam captures head-on crash between snowplow and truck on northern B.C. highway

Driver posted to social media that he walked away largely unscathed

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Top doctor urges Canadians to limit gatherings as ‘deeply concerning’ outbreaks continue

Canada’s active cases currently stand at 63,835, compared to 53,907 a week prior

A Canadian Pacific freight train travels around Morant’s Curve near Lake Louise, Alta., on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014. A study looking at 646 wildlife deaths along the railway tracks in Banff and Yoho national parks in Alberta and British Columbia has found that train speed is one of the biggest factors. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Study finds train speed a top factor in wildlife deaths in Banff, Yoho national parks

Research concludes effective mitigation could address train speed and ability of wildlife to see trains

A airport worker is pictured at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. Wednesday, March 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canada extends COVID restrictions for non-U.S. travellers until Jan. 21 amid second wave

This ban is separate from the one restricting non-essential U.S. travel

Menno Place. (Google Street View image.)
B.C. care home looks to hire residents’ family members amid COVID-19-related staff shortage

Family would get paid as temporary workers, while having chance to see loved ones while wearing PPE

A man walks by a COVID-19 test pod at the Vancouver airport in this undated handout photo. A study has launched to investigate the safest and most efficient way to rapidly test for COVID-19 in people taking off from the Vancouver airport. The airport authority says the study that got underway Friday at WestJet’s domestic check-in area is the first of its kind in Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Vancouver Airport Authority *MANDATORY CREDIT*
COVID-19 rapid test study launches at Vancouver airport for departing passengers

Airport authority says that a positive rapid test result does not constitute a medical diagnosis for COVID-19

A small crash in the water south of Courtenay Saturday afternoon. Two men had to be rescued, but reports indicate there were no serious injuries. Photo by Mike Chouinard
Small plane crash in Comox Valley waters Saturday afternoon

Two rescued from plane that had flipped in water; no serious injuries reported

A photo from 2017, of Nuchatlaht First Nation members outside court after filing a land title case in B.C. ( Submitted photo/Nuchatlaht First Nation).
Vancouver Island First Nation calls on B.C. to honour UNDRIP in historic title case

Nuchatlaht First Nation says Crown counsel continues to stall the case using the ‘distasteful’ argument that the Nation ‘abandoned’ their land

Most Read