PCB's in People of St. Lawrence Island

Alaska Community Action on Toxics
505 West Northern Lights Boulevard, Suite 205
Anchorage, Alaska 99503

See http://www.akaction.net/index.html for more information.

For immediate release: Wednesday October 2, 2002

For more information, please contact:

June Gologergen-Martin or Pamela Miller, ACAT (907) 222-7714
Jane Kava, Mayor of Savoonga, (907) 984-6614
David Carpenter, M.D. SUNY (518) 525-2660

Results Detailed in Study Funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

Anchorage—Today, Alaska Community Action on Toxics released a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences-funded report on a study of blood serum levels of contaminants among Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska Yu’pik people. The most important result indicated that PCB exposures are significantly higher in people most closely associated with the former military site at Northeast Cape.

The scientific analyses showed that the average PCB level measured in 60 Saint Lawrence Island residents was 7.5 parts per billion (ppb), compared with a national United States average of 0.9-1.5 ppb for people with no unusual PCB exposures. The highest levels of PCBs on Saint Lawrence Island were found in people who spent the most time at or near the formerly used military site at Northeast Cape.

"These results show significant PCB and persistent pesticide contamination of the Saint Lawrence Island Yu’pik people," stated Dr. David Carpenter of the State University of New York (SUNY) School of Public Health and Health Coordinator for the project. "While some portion of these contaminants derives from atmospheric transport of contamination, our results show a greater elevation of PCBs in the blood of those individuals who used Northeast Cape for traditional or occupational purposes. We conclude that the PCB contamination from the formerly used military site at Northeast Cape has resulted in increased human exposure. Significantly, the presence of a non-persistent PCB congener in the blood of several people with camps at Northeast Cape indicates on-going exposure." Elevated levels of the breakdown product of the pesticide DDT (DDE) were found in the people of Gambell, likely indicating that military uses in the past were a source of contamination.

Saint Lawrence Island is located in the Bering Sea approximately 130 miles west of Nome, Alaska. The northwest end of the island is about 35 miles from the Russian mainland. Residents of the Island were exposed to a range of contaminants during the Cold War period when the military established camps at the community of Gambell and at the traditional fishing and hunting camp located at Northeast Cape. The military operations extended from the early 1950s to the early 1970s. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the clean up of the two formerly used defense sites.

The study is a collaboration of the villages of Gambell and Savoonga, the SUNY School of Public Health and the Environmental Research Center of SUNY at Oswego, Norton Sound Health Corporation, and coordinated by Alaska Community Action on Toxics. This effort is part of a four-year project, Environmental Justice for Saint Lawrence Island, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Researchers seek to identify sources of contamination affecting the communities of Saint Lawrence Island, including the formerly used military sites and distant sources, and determine whether health problems may be linked to environmental contamination. The collaborative work was prompted by Annie Alowa, a respected elder from Savoonga and health aide for 25 years, now deceased, who observed increases in cancer and other health problems that she associated with the military site at Northeast Cape.

"These results confirm that we continue to be exposed to contamination from the military site at Northeast Cape" said Jane Kava, Mayor of Savoonga. "Northeast Cape has always been an important place for our subsistence fishing, hunting, and gathering of greens and berries. The military sites must be cleaned up in order to protect the health of the people of Saint Lawrence Island." Blood samples were taken at the request of community leaders in Gambell and Savoonga who have also been concerned about potential health effects of contamination from two former military sites on Saint Lawrence Island. In 2001, the team also collected and analyzed murre eggs to determine the level of contaminants in this important food source .

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a class of extremely persistent industrial chemicals manufactured for use in electrical transformers, capacitors, inks, paints, pesticides, dust control and insulating fluids. PCBs include 209 distinct chemical forms (congeners), each having different health effects. Although production of PCBs was banned in the United States in 1977, PCB products are still in use in this country and elsewhere. Because of their persistence in the environment, they have been transported around the globe via wind and air currents. PCBs contaminate the bodies of every animal and human being on earth.

The Arctic is a hemispheric sink for PCBs and other persistent organic pollutants because the chemicals accumulate in the cold environment and concentrate within the fats of animals and people. Improper disposal of PCB-contaminated transformers and other materials at the military site at Northeast Cape on Saint Lawrence Island has resulted in elevated levels of PCBs found in soils, water, plants, and fish. Exposure to people may occur through ingestion of contaminated foods or water, through the skin, or inhalation. PCBs cause adverse health effects at exceedingly low levels. Dr. Carpenter concludes that PCBs are a greater hazard to human health than previously appreciated because they can cause irreversible effects on brain development and IQ in infants, immune system suppression, disruption of endocrine function, and certain kinds of cancers. Studies have documented health effects in people with comparable levels of PCBs as those found in the Saint Lawrence Island Yu’pik people.

The international Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), signed by more than 150 countries, recognizes PCBs among twelve of the world’s most dangerous chemicals that are known to be detrimental to human health and the environment. The treaty will eliminate or severely restrict global production, use, and release of the twelve worst POPs and provide a science-based process for adding other POPs to the list in the future. Fifty tribes from Alaska, including Saint Lawrence Island, signed resolutions in support of a strong treaty to eliminate persistent pollutants.
The research team for Saint Lawrence Island will continue to investigate contamination through environmental and health studies directed by the communities. The military activities at Gambell contaminated the area with fuels, explosive ammunition, and buried debris that contains other hazardous materials. Military contamination at Northeast Cape includes solvents, fuels (from spills totaling at least 220,000 gallons), PCBs, asbestos, and heavy metals.

"This project provides a way for the communities of Gambell and Savoonga to direct their own independent investigation," said June Gologergen-Martin, Saint Lawrence Island Yu’pik Project Coordinator at Alaska Community Action on Toxics. "We are training people in Savoonga and Gambell to conduct environmental sampling and health assessments. In July and August 2002, the NIEHS research team conducted environmental sampling at Gambell and Northeast Cape, including groundwater, surface water, vegetation, and sediments samples from areas known to have been affected by military occupation. We conducted these activities to provide useful information for community residents to make decisions that will protect the health of the people of Saint Lawrence Island and ensure responsible cleanup of the military sites there."

In a news release on September 23, Representative John Dingell, Ranking Member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce released a General Accounting Office (GAO) report that criticized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for failing to adequately investigate chemical and munitions hazards at 1,500 formerly used defense sites throughout the nation. "Clearly, as this report shows, the Corps’ slipshod investigative work cannot be trusted to protect the health and well-being of our environment or of our citizens," states Congressman Dingell. "The GAO report shows that no state or territory can be assured that the Department of Defense and the Corps has identified all of the contamination at former defense sites." The GAO report evaluated Corps’ decisions on sites where the agency determined that no further cleanup was necessary. The GAO found that the Corps lacked sufficient information for 43% of the sites in Alaska.

Community members have consistently expressed disapproval of the Army Corps pf Engineers’ improper site assessment of contaminated areas within the two military sites on Saint Lawrence Island. Approximately 30 people from Gambell and Savoonga actively participate in the Restoration Advisory Board, established to provide guidance to the Corps’ remediation program for the formerly used defense sites at Gambell and Northeast Cape.


If you want detailed information, you can read the following PDF format report: Congener-Specific PCB Analysis of Murre Eggs from Saint Lawrence Island, Alaska. Final Report Prepared by the Environmental Research Center SUNY at Oswego by Please click here for the Murre Egg report.


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