Home to Contamination

Book cover
Silent Snowby By Marla ConeGrove/Atlantic. 246p $24

Two decades ago, outside on the bow of a Norwegian ice-breaker, other scientists and I drank cognac poured over 10,000-year-old ice from a nearby glacier. Bundled up, only miles from the North Pole, we enjoyed an August sunset, a break in our scientific meetings to develop policy for protecting the Arctic. Even then we knew that the pristine appearance of the sea and the purple-blue glaciers was completely misleading.

The award-winning journalist Marla Cone tells why. In her magnificently written Silent Snow, she reveals how invisible toxins have made Arctic peoples and animals some of the most contaminated on the planet. Her tale is part adventure, part anthropology, part travelogue, part natural history and part sciencebut always gripping and entertaining.

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Cone spent months living side by side with Arctic native peoples and scientists. She heard their stories, lived as they lived, ate as they ateoften only raw or fermented whale. Cone also did her scientific homework, a task made easier by her two decades of environmental journalism. The result is a work comparable to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the groundbreaking warning published in 1962 about the dangers of pesticides. Cone’s book likely will become the classic warning about the Arctic. A scientific whodunit, a detective story about pollutants, as well as a touching and heart-warming anthropological journey, Silent Snow reads like a good novel, except that it is all true. It has unexplained phenomena, secret villains, innocent victims, charismatic characters, beloved animals and a harsh but exotic natural backdrop.

The first six chapters of Silent Snow explain The Arctic Paradox. Why do millions of tons of toxic chemicals, produced and used by industrial nations, end up in the Arctic, where they are neither produced nor used? Explaining how toxins accumulate in animal fat and bio-accumulate up the food chain, how atmospheric hopscotch and ocean transport bring them to the Arctic, Cone unravels the paradox. For centuries Arctic peoples have been free of heart disease. Eating only food from the sea, rich in vitamins and especially essential fatty acids, they have been extraordinarily healthy. In the last half century, all this has changed. Arctic native peoples and polar bears have 200 toxic contaminants in their bodies, some at levels millions to billions of times greater than that of the water supplying their food. Their contaminant levels are many times greater than that of citizens in chemical-producing nations. As a result, they face damaged immune systems, increased cancers, neurological and developmental impairment in their children, lower IQ’s, hormone or endocrine disruption and massive extinction of Arctic species. In a masterful tale that combines tracing scientific mysteries, telling stories of Arctic hunters and experiencing communal whale feasts, Cone shows how an entire culture and way of life is being destroyed by chemicals from distant peoples.

The middle five chapters of the book tell the story of scientists trying to advise the native Arctic peoples about their heavy contamination. Should they recommend not breast-feeding their babies? Abandoning traditional foods? The dilemmas facing scientists are massive, particularly because the Arctic pollutant-load is increasing. For every long-lived chemical that is banned, like DDT, industrial nations soon begin using dozens of others that are even more dangerous. The vicious cycle continues.

The final three chapters of the book outline a prescription for saving the Arctic. Tellingly, they note that in 1997 the United Nations recommended an international treaty to ban or reduce P.O.P.’s (persistent organic pollutants), which are responsible for the Arctic damage. By 2004, 59 nationsincluding all major European countries, Canada, Mexico, Japan and many Asian and African nationshad signed the P.O.P. treaty into law. The United States, however, has not. The Bush administration claims it would harm the $9-billion annual U.S. chemical industry. Yet as Cone notes, already U.S. children have suffered neurological impairment, decreased immune function, increased cancers and a host of other ailments because of chemical contamination. One of every six babies in the United States is born to a mother carrying high levels of pollutantslike mercurythat can cause neurological and developmental damage to her children. Yet the Bush administration has weakened many pollution laws, failed to enforce others and allowed a tripling of mercury emissions. As Cone points out, Arctic peoples are not the only victims. They are merely the canaries in the coal mines of global pollution.

Cone’s book is scientifically accurate and clear, even though it reads like a thriller. I could find only one misleading claim: on page 48 she says heart disease is the industrialized world’s leading killer. Actually, since 1999, cancer has been the leading killer of Americans under age 65.

Full of sympathy and human understanding of the Arctic peoples, Silent Snow is extraordinarily balanced and evenhanded. If anything, it understates the case against pollution. Giving multiple perspectives on all issues, typically Cone lets scientists and indigenous people speak for themselves. She knows how to tell a story. Her book is rich with effortless insightsas when she notes that Americans often are critical of Arctic peoples for killing whales, but do the same through their pollution. She puzzles over the fact that the worst Arctic hardships come not from the weather, but from pollutants never made or used there.

Underlying Silent Snow is a subtle moral compass, one that never allows preaching or sentimentality. Yet its message is clear. Victims of Arctic pollution, especially children, are imperiled by powerful and wealthy interests in distant lands, lands far less harmed by their own chemicals. Although her remarks are balanced and factual, Cone documents how European nations are correcting their chemical addictions, through new policies like REACH. Yet she claims the United States says it wants protection but does nothing. Siding with the chemical industry and its powerful lobbies, both U.S. Democrats and Republicans are avoiding regulations that the Europeans are embracing, regulations that could protect all of us.

Read this book. Then send it to your congressional representatives and senators.

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