Toxic truths in my island’s air

James Vallette | March 26, 2013 | Newsletter

One of my favorite snowshoeing routes here in Acadia National Park passes a weather station on McFarland Hill.  I have always loved tracking the weather, so of course it is fun to look at the equipment.

Over the years, watching the weather has become a grimmer hobby, as our shoreline gets chewed away by storms of increasing intensity, the maple sugaring season grows more sporadic, vultures circle the skies where they once never flew, and the Gulf of Maine undergoes dramatic losses in marine biota as the sea temperature rises.

A new study has layered another data set that is less obvious than climate change, but as immediate and serious:  according to data collected at the McFarland Hill station, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are pouring in from industrial sites upwind.

“Acadia National Park is located on Mt. Desert Island in the State of Maine on the northeastern coast of the United States. It is far from major pollution sources and urban and agricultural areas. However prevailing winds make it downwind of much of the continental US so it can be used to determine the extent of POPs’ transport in North America,” explains the international research team led by Dr. Sait C. Sofuoglu of the Izmir Institute of Technology. The scientific journal, Environmental Pollution, just published their report, “Atmospheric concentrations and potential sources of PCBs, PBDEs, and pesticides.”

Some of the POPs tracked on McFarland Hill are legacy pollutants, like PCBs, which have largely (though not entirely) been phased-out of commerce. Others, like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), are newer to the market and continue to be produced, even though these, too, tend to be highly persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic.

PBDEs are flame retardants added to some building materials, like roofing membranes, furniture foam, and spray polyurethane foam insulation. Air currents deliver freshly produced PBDEs to the monitoring equipment on McFarland Hill.

PBDEs have been called “the PCBs of the future.” The future is now.

This is not the first time this island has been at the receiving end of the global chemical industry’s dirtiest business. In one of the greatest ecological works, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson described the links between POPs and the decimation of sea birds in the Gulf of Maine and beyond.  I saw firsthand the positive impact of her work when I was a guide on tour boats in the summers of my youth.  In the span of less than a decade, I saw resurgent populations of terns and peregrine falcons and American bald eagles.

The weather station on McFarland Hill is generating actionable data, much like the levels of DDT in eggshells that Ms. Carson publicized.  Fifty years after Silent Spring, nature’s signals are again pointing the way for essential marketplace change.  It is up to consumers to spur that change by not purchasing products that contain brominated flame retardants.

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