International deal to protect ozone layer behind new contaminant problem: study

International deal to protect ozone layer behind new contaminant problem: study

EDMONTON — A landmark environmental agreement that helped close the ozone hole in the 1990s has led to new chemical contaminants forming in the atmosphere and accumulating on land.

“The Montreal Protocol was probably one of the best regulations out there to involve all the countries at once,” said Heidi Pickard, one of nine researchers to publish the findings in a paper Thursday.

“But, of course, you have these unintended consequences.”

The Montreal Protocol, which came into force in 1989, banned chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, that were used in refrigerators, air conditioners and aerosol sprays. They were destroying the ozone layer, which helps protect the planet from damaging ultraviolet solar radiation.

It has been signed by 197 parties and is considered the world’s most successful environmental agreement.

But the chemicals used to replace the banned ones are breaking down in the atmosphere into new contaminants known as short-chain fluorinated alkyl acids.

They don’t seem to be as toxic as other long-lived contaminants such as dioxins. They are, however, highly persistent, said co-author Amila De Silva of Environment Canada.

“They’re known as forever chemicals. They just don’t break down.”

Little is known about this family of chemicals, said Pickard, who now works at Harvard University. But at least one of them is known to be toxic to plants. Others harm freshwater insects. Others accumulate in plants, including food crops.

Their presence is growing. Although still measured in billionths of a gram per litre, their concentration in ice cores from two High Arctic locations has increased about sevenfold since 1990, said co-author Alison Criscitiello from the University of Alberta.

“It’s significant,” she said. “The accumulation rate is fairly high.”

Concentrations of one chemical known to be harmful are expected to increase as further substitutes for the banned compounds are phased in.

As well, preliminary data suggests the concentration of these chemicals is higher in the south.

“When we measure rain and snow in populated urban areas, we’re finding quite a prevalence of these substances in much higher concentration,” De Silva said.

Finding these acids in two of Earth’s remotest places — the Devon Island ice cap and Mt. Oxford on Ellesmere Island — should be a warning, the scientists say. More needs to be known about them, and soon.

“There is not toxicological information out there,” Pickard said.

No one knows, for instance, if they increase in concentrations higher up the food chain.

“The lower end of the food web is probably the target for these substances — the invertebrates, the plankton, plants that take up water,” De Silva said.

Pickard said some scientists believe the chemicals have immune-system impacts on children at levels already exceeded in the ice cores.

“There’s a lot of research that needs to be done,” said Criscitiello. “It’s quite a large class of chemicals.”

The researchers hope their paper in Geophysical Research Letters will spark interest. And, if nothing else, they hope their findings highlight a need to cast a wide scientific net when environmental regulations are drafted.

“When the Montreal Protocol came into effect, there wasn’t enough research available to understand (the consequences),” said De Silva. ”A more holistic approach to decision-making when it comes to environmental impacts is necessary.

“It’s difficult to do, but it is necessary.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2020

— Follow @row1960 on Twitter

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw updates media on the Covid-19 situation in Edmonton on Friday March 20, 2020. nbsp;Alberta is reporting it's highest daily number of COVID-19 cases, with 364 new infections. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta confirmed 323 COVID-19 cases Tuesday

Central zone active cases at 145

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Maskwacis reporting 37 active cases

Numbers current as of Oct. 19

Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, receive flu shot. Photo via Government of Alberta
COVID-19: One more death in central zone

Ponoka County on province’s watchlist

Photo submitted/ Millet In Bloom
Town of Millet declared Best Blooming Community

The Town of Millet is being recognized for their efforts to meet the challenges of 2020.

Many rural municipalities were concerned about a proposed reduction to their industrial revenues, but Alberta’s Municipal Affairs minister has come up with an alternative solution. (Photo contributed)
Province and rural municipalities agree on a plan to support Alberta’s energy industry

Creating new wells or pipelines would result in a three year ‘tax holiday’

Conservative member of Parliament Pierre Poilievre speaks during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on October 19, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Liberals say Tory effort to set up COVID-19 committee will be a confidence matter

The Tories were originally proposing an ‘anticorruption’ committee

(The Canadian Press)
Alberta-raised Cree actor lands role in Disney’s live-action ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’

Tiger Lily is featured in Disney’s 1953 animated “Peter Pan” film

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday February 4, 2020 in Ottawa. The Alberta government is welcoming news that Ottawa has approved an expansion of the Nova Gas Transmission Ltd. gathering system in Alberta — while condemning federal delays that it says cost this summer’s construction season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Alberta welcomes federal approval of gas pipeline expansion while criticizing delay

Pipeline division owned by Calgary-based TC Energy Corp. will now be required to restore 3,840 hectares of caribou habitat,

This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 particle isolated from a patient, in a laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-NIAID/NIH via AP
At least 49 cases of COVID-19 linked to wedding in Calgary: Alberta Health

McMillan says the city of Calgary has recently seen several outbreaks linked to social gatherings

Alberta Premier Jason Kenny and government house leader Jason Nixon chat before the speech from the throne delivered in Edmonton, Alta., on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Alberta politicians are to return to the legislature Tuesday with a plan to discuss up to 20 new bills — many of which are focused on the province’s economic recovery. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta legislature to resume Tuesday; focus to be on economic recovery

Opposition house leader Heather Sweet said the NDP will focus on holding Premier Jason Kenney

A passer-by walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada ‘yet to see’ deaths due to recent COVID surge as cases hit 200,000

Much of the increase in case numbers can be attributed to Ontario and Quebec

robbery
UPDATE: Suspect identified in early morning shooting

Rimbey RCMP had responded to a complaint of an armed robbery at the Bluffton City General Store

Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen (Alberta government photo)
Big boost for Alberta college agriculture research

The $2-million agreement to benefit Lethbridge College’s applied research team

Grant and Barbara Howse, in quarantine in Invermere. Mike Turner photo
Denied entry into U.S., Canadian couple still forced to quarantine for 2 weeks

The rules around crossing the U.S. border led to a bizarre situation for an Invermere couple

Most Read