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Young, Bi And Polar

2 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick

When they began finding polar bears with both male and female sex organs, scientists had a suspicion about what might be causing the deformities. The industrial chemicals known as PCBs, which have polluted land and water all over the world, tend to become concentrated in animals’ fatty tissues. Seals, which are the bears’ main source of food, are essentially blobs of blubber with flippers attached. And because PCBs are thought to mimic estrogen, some experts fear that even low-level exposure could wreak havoc with a bear’s reproductive system.

At the time, that chain of reasoning was mostly theoretical. Now, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, an international agency based in Norway, has firmed up at least one of the links. In a report released last week, the group says that polar bears, Arctic foxes, harbor porpoises, seals and birds do indeed show significant contamination, not just with PCBs but also with mercury and other toxins carried north by winds and ocean currents.

Like polar bears, the Inuit of northern Canada and Greenland subsist on seals and other fatty Arctic animals and have some of the highest exposures to PCBs. Nobody has yet reported any hermaphroditic children, thankfully, and while the effects of massive PCB exposure can include cancer and retardation, the lower levels in seals and seabirds haven’t been definitively linked to any specific ills.

But they have been associated–circumstantially–with reproductive, immune-system and brain-development problems. What’s the solution? A treaty to ban and clean up the poisons would be ideal. Until then, the Inuit may have to alter a diet that has been unchanged for generations. The polar bears, alas, have no such option. –By Michael D. Lemonick

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