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

IN IT TOGETHER: Important to move your butt

Maple Ridge mom offers series of wellness columns aimed at helping navigate through COVID-19

Council conduct bylaw under scrutiny in Maple Ridge

Bylaw being questioned at Committee of the Whole Tuesday afternoon

Pitt Meadows to host live virtual city council meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Mayor Dingwall updates on new initiatives and city staffing

Haney Bypass section closed for Easter long weekend

Bypass improvements expected to be completed later this year

City of Pitt Meadows launches local business and services listing

Guide provides info which will encourage and enable residents to shop local

COVID-19: 4 new deaths, 25 new cases but only in Vancouver Coastal, Fraser Health

A total of 1,291 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus

COVID-19 world update: Joy in Wuhan as lockdown lifted; Pope denounces profiteers

Comprehensive update of coronavirus news items from around the world

COVID-19: Don’t get away for Easter weekend, Dr. Bonnie Henry warns

John Horgan, Adrian Dix call 130 faith leaders as holidays approach

COVID-19: Trudeau says 30K ventilators on the way; 3.6M Canadians claim benefits

Canada has seen more than 17,000 cases and at least 345 deaths due to COVID-19

RCMP call on kids to name latest foal recruits

The baby horses names are to start with the letter ‘S’

As Canadians return home amid pandemic, border crossings dip to just 5% of usual traffic

Non-commercial land crossing dipped by 95%, air travel dropped by 96 per cent, according to the CBSA

Logan Boulet Effect: Green Shirt Day calls on Canadians to become organ donors

While social distancing, the day also honours the 16 lives lost in the 2018 Humboldt Broncos Crash

COMMENTARY: Knowing where COVID-19 cases are does not protect you

Dr. Bonnie Henry explains why B.C. withholds community names

Most Read