Study: St. Lawrence residents have high levels of PCBs

Posted: Friday, October 04, 2002

ANCHORAGE - Residents of Saint Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea show high levels of PCB contamination, according to a four-year study.

The study, released Wednesday, found that Native hunting and fishing families who camp near a Cold War Air Force site on the island have nearly 10 times as many toxic PCBs in their blood as average Americans.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are long-lasting chemicals once made for electrical transformers and other industrial uses. Their manufacture has been banned since 1977, but those already in the environment break down very slowly. Arctic people in particular are exposed to PCBs because global atmospheric distribution patterns deposit them in the north.

The Northeast Cape military base closed in the early 1970s, but families from Savoonga who use the area showed high contamination in blood tests a year ago, according to the study prepared by Alaska Community Action on Toxics. The environmental group worked with St. Lawrence leaders under a federal environmental health grant.

Overall, Natives of Gambell and Savoonga, the two communities on the Bering Sea island, averaged 7.5 parts per billion of PCBs in their blood, compared with a national average of 0.9-1.5, according to the study. A former Army base in Gambell is also suspected of being a source of pollution, the group said.

The highest measurements were an average of 9 parts per billion, but climbing as high as 19. Those concentrations were found in people who worked at the Northeast Cape site or hunted marine mammals and fished near there, said June Gologergen-Martin, who grew up in Savoonga and helped direct the study.

"When I first found out about it, I was pretty devastated," said Gologergen-Martin, whose father was in the National Guard and worked at Northeast Cape. "To some people, this was strongly suspected because of all the illnesses we've had going on."

The bases, including the old White Alice radar site at Northeast Cape, were important military sounding posts during the Cold War because the island is near the Siberian coast. St. Lawrence Natives are Siberian Yupik, related to Natives on the Russian shore.

The two former bases on St. Lawrence have been the subject of cleanups by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But nearby communities want to press the Corps to do more to remove toxic hot spots, Pamela Miller, a spokesperson with the ACAT group, told the Anchorage Daily News.

The new study was undertaken in part because of alarms raised by the late Annie Alowa, a longtime health aide in Savoonga concerned by increases in cancer and other health problems such as miscarriages, Miller said.

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