Dr. Derek Muir conducting field research in the Arctic/photo provided by author Dr. Derek Muir conducting field research in the Arctic/photo provided by author

Arctic researcher Dr. Derek Muir was awarded the $100,000 Weston Family Foundation prize this week for his decades of work detailing how persistent chemicals in the environment travel to and through northern waters and species.

For more than 30 years, Muir has worked with Canadian government and university scientists to better understand how pollutants like mercury and flame retardants travel thousands of kilometres via ocean currents from rivers in Northern Europe and lakes in Southern Canada to settle in the tissue of polar bears, fish, whales and humans.

“We've regulated these chemicals in many cases early on like DDT in the 1980s and PCBs,” Muir tells A\J, “but they're so persistently living in our environment and circulating globally in some cases.”

Over the years, Muir’s work has been instrumental in shifting national policies regarding how we manage the discharge of chemical contaminants and how we react to their presence in the environment. Muir’s research on mercury contamination in the north was one reason why the Government of Nunavut issued a warning in 2012 against eating large quantities of ringed seal liver for women of childbearing age.

We've regulated these chemicals in many cases early on like DDT in the 1980s and PCBs, but they're so persistently living in our environment and circulating globally.

But despite decades of research showing how persistent organic pollutants move through waterways to infect new environments, Muir says many questions remain as to what impact many chemicals are having on northern flora and fauna.

“The chemicals that I'm measuring, I will say that I wouldn't be able to report any actual impact,” he says. At least not yet. “The levels are generally below what we think are probably causing a biological effect. And the animals have lots of other stressors like changing diets because of global warming and changing land cover.”

Beyond Canada, Muir’s work has also been used to set policy through major international agreements, including the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the 2014 Minamata Convention on Mercury.  

“Dr. Muir has been instrumental in advancing our understanding of the greater implications of chemical contaminants, resulting in strengthened policy that protects the environment and raises awareness of human risk associated with exposure,” says Geordie Dalglish, director of the Weston Foundation and chair of its northern committee.

The prize was awarded through the Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies and handed out at ArcticNet 20218’s annual meeting in Ottawa on Wednesday. In addition to $50,000 given to Muir directly is an additional $50,000 he aims to direct at ongoing research looking at how global warming will impact Arctic drinking water.

“I think making people aware of this potential impact of global warming on drinking water supplies in the Canadian Arctic is something we should be doing,” Muir says. “It’s an emerging issue.”

Andrew Reeves is the Editor-in-Chief of Alternatives Journal. Overrun, his book about Asian carp in North America, will be published in Spring 2019 by ECW Press. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights. Follow him on Twitter.

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