Table of Contents:
Introduction: A Moral Compass in a Vast, Lonely Land
Part I: The Arctic Paradox
Part II: Scientists Seeking Order Out of Chaos
Part III: Solutions and Predictions
Epilogue: Survival of the Fittest: Walking in the Inuit's Footsteps
Blowing in the Wind: A Contaminant's Long Journey North
When chemicals are spilled in urban centers, sprayed on farm fields, and
synthesized in factories, they become hitchhikers embarking on a global voyage.
Carried by winds, waves, and rivers, they move drop by drop, migrating from the
cities of the United States, Europe, and Russia into the bodies of Arctic
animals and people a world away.
The journey of a toxic hitchhiker might begin on a hot, steamy summer day in Chicago, along the shore of Lake Michigan. A fire sweeps through an office building, and the flames reach an electrical transformer, which catches fire and explodes. Thick clouds of smoke clog the sky, and oily liquids called polychlorinated biphenyls spray into the air and leak onto the pavement. These compounds, known as PCBs, were at one time among the most popular chemicals ever produced. First manufactured in 1929 by substituting chlorine atoms for hydrogen atoms in hydrocarbon formulas, PCBs do not burn and are nearly indestructible, so they were perfect coolants, insulators, and hydraulic fluids. During the first half of the twentieth century, electric companies purchased large quantities for immense electricity-storing devices like transformers. By the mid-1960s, many of the same characteristics that made PCBs ideal for industrial applications began to wreak havoc in the environment, particularly the Great Lakes, the Baltic Sea, and other industrialized areas. Their manufacture was banned in the United States and much of the world in the late 1970s. Yet thousands of old transformers still exist, about 21,000 of them in the United States alone that carry more than 100 million pounds of PCBs. Whenever they catch fire, leak, or are improperly disposed of, the compounds seep into the environment.
When this transformer explodes in Chicago, most of the PCBs, perhaps three-quarters of them, fall to the ground on city streets or drift into Lake Michigan. But some vaporize, turning into gases that float into the air. They spread out randomly in all directions. Some are lifted up toward towering columns of cumulus clouds, rising perhaps three miles up, where they are caught by fast-moving winds. Traveling at possibly 100 miles per hour, the PCBs quickly head east, crossing over Michigan and New York and then the Atlantic Ocean. The winds sweep them north, over Arctic Canada, then Greenland, then a remote string of Arctic islands in Norway. Within days, some of the PCBs from the Chicago transformer have moved across the top of the world, arriving near the North Pole.
Copyright © 2005 by Marla Cone. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
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