UNITED NATIONS - Environmental groups and indigenous rights activists are calling for the White House and U.S. Congress to ratify an international treaty against the use and production of certain hazardous chemicals.
"Time is running out. The Congress has to take a stand and fight for the lives of the contaminated people and environment of the North," said Andrea Carmen, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council.
Carmen and other activists, who are attending international talks on the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in Geneva this week, say they have grave concerns about the impact of toxic chemicals on the health of native communities -- especially those living in far northern parts of the globe.
Numerous studies have concluded that exposure to toxic chemicals, such as DDT, endosulfan, and lindane, is afflicting the indigenous populations in the Arctic region with illnesses of various descriptions.
"The indigenous Arctic peoples are suffering the most from these chemicals," said Vi Waghiyi, an activist from Saint Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea, "because the chemicals are long lasting, and drift North on wind and water currents."
"That means these chemicals are also in our traditional foods and affecting our health and the health of the children," she added in a statement, citing studies that conclude that even minimum exposure to POPs could cause immune system suppression, learning and development disabilities, diabetes, impairment of reproductive health, and certain kinds of cancer.
Public health research shows that the indigenous people in the Arctic relying on marine food are exposed to levels to POPs that are associated with significant health affects.
Last year, an official study in Alaska pointed out that the rate of birth defects in the state was twice as high as that of the rest of the country. According to the United Nations, increased exposure to POPs in the Arctic is causing gender imbalance in the region.
"Some Arctic indigenous populations have shown levels of contaminants in blood and breast milk higher than those found elsewhere in the world," said Stephenie Hendricks of the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, an aboriginal rights environmental group.
"The Arctic acts as a 'cold trap' for contaminants transported via atmosphere and ocean currents," she explained. "POPs accumulate and some may increase in the food web. Indigenous communities are reliant on a traditional diet of food from the land and ocean for their physical, cultural, and spiritual sustenance."
Indigenous activists say they do not want lindane -- used as an insecticide and a treatment for certain skin maladies -- to end up in their food, natural environment, and breast milk. "It is a chemical of concern to us because it is highly toxic and used for head lice and scabies," Shawna Carmen, of the Ahtna Athabascan Indian tribe, told OneWorld via email, citing a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics that suggests lindane causes damage to the central nervous system among humans.
Lindane is one of nine chemicals that delegates to the Geneva talks are considering adding to the "dirty dozen" that are already prohibited by the Stockholm Convention.
The Convention was forged in 2001 and took effect in 2004, once 50 countries had ratified it. Some 163 countries have now agreed to be bound by its rules, which aim to limit the use and spread of chemicals that are highly toxic, last for decades before degrading into less dangerous forms, accumulate in the tissue of humans and wildlife, and travel long distances through air and water, impacting those in countries far from where the chemicals were originally put to use.
The Convention recognizes that the Arctic region's ecosystems and its indigenous communities are "particularly at risk because of biomagnifications of POPs and that contamination of their traditional foods is a public health issue."
Over the past eight years, the U.S. Congress has refused to join the treaty.
Environmental activists charge that the influence of chemical industry lobbyists has stalled action by U.S. lawmakers. The International Indian Treaty Council's Andrea Carmen draws a straight line between the millions of dollars spent lobbying Congress and the deaths and health of those living in the Arctic.
Activists who are attending the UN meeting in Geneva say they are hopeful that the U.S. delegation will play a positive role because, during his campaign last summer, President Barack Obama pledged to build close ties with native communities.
But the environmental and indigenous advocates have so far been disappointed with the U.S. role in the talks.
"The U.S. delegates just aren't showing the kind of leadership we expected under the new administration," said Pesticide Action Network's Karl Tupper. "We had hoped they would use their influence to block proposed loopholes and exemptions that undermine the treaty's effectiveness."
"Despite not being party to the treaty, the U.S. has a leadership role to play in pressing for rapid action on the nine new chemicals being considered for addition under Stockholm," Tupper's group said this week, urging U.S. citizens to sign a petition to be delivered to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Indigenous activist Andrea Carmen is reminding U.S. officials and others in Geneva that their actions -- or inactions -- will have an immediate and long-lasting impact on the health of people in communities around the globe.
"We are traveling to Geneva to inform the other nations that for us this is not an abstract issue -- we need action now to stop the production of these chemicals that affect our health and the health of future generations," said Carmen. "These chemicals harm everyone -- we believe it is our responsibility to protect the health of all peoples of our Mother Earth."