”Environmental chemicals accumulate in the North, carried by winds and sea currents. For example, very high levels of mercury originating from China have been measured in Greenland, a country which does not use mercury at all. This metal passes through whales and seals and into people”, explains Oulu University Professor of Medicine Arja Rautio, who specialises in Arctic research. Last spring she was appointed as the University of the Arctic’s Vice-President for Research.
”The North shows us what kind of risks may be realised elsewhere in the world. If this region has polluted wilderness and methane-oozing craters in the earth, as in Alaska and Siberia, it has an impact on travel routes and tourist flows, land use, transport routes and many other matters which are economically significant for the southern parts of every northern country and indeed for the whole world.”
”The effects of the warming climate are global. If the North gets hotter, living in Africa will no longer be possible.”
Researchers are currently working out whether the melting permafrost is releasing into the ground mercury, dioxins and other environmental poisons which have possibly been locked up in the ice for around a century. Another threat comes from infectious diseases, such as anthrax, which could start to spread from the carcasses of animals released from the melting permafrost.
The warming climate also brings new diseases to the north through the arrival of new insect species:
”In Russia, cases of brain fever and other infections caused by ticks are increasing all the time.”
Deficient sewer systems pose another health risk for northern residents: in parts of Greenland and Alaska, for example, there are places where waste water flows directly into the earth or into bodies of water such that waste water and clean water is mixed together.
Suicides increasing among young people
”It is not very often mentioned in public discussion that 4 million people live within the Arctic Circle and up to 10 million people within the Arctic region.”
At the same time, while suicides among young people in Finland have decreased, suicides among the native peoples of the North have increased.
”10 years ago, the suicide rate among the Sami people was 53.8 suicides per 100,000 people. Now the figure is 80 per 100,000. In Sweden, one third of young Sami people have considered suicide. In northern Canada, as many as 170 people out of every 100,000 end up committing suicide. In Russia, suicides among the Nenets are higher than in other segments of the population”, Ms Rautio explains.
”Before the 60s, suicides were rare among native peoples. The change resulted from societal transformation. For the native peoples, their family is more important than themselves, and the reindeer's” health is more important than their own health. Because of societal changes, young people no longer feel this connection so strongly.”
”Much is also due to mistreatment of children and young people, as is often the case in closed communities. For example, widespread child abuse was uncovered in northern Norway among the Laestadian communities.”
A heart for the North
Professor Arja Rautio is from Rovaniemi, which is north of the Arctic Circle. Ms Rautio has always loved nature, and as a researcher she is particularly interested in the interaction between people and nature.
Ms Rautio graduated from Oulu University as a Licentiate of Medicine in 1981, and also completed her postgraduate studies in Oulu. In her work in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, one of her research topics is the interaction between medicines and the damage they can cause.
Over 10 years ago, she was appointed as Director of the Centre for Arctic Medicine. In her role as Duodecim’s Vice-chairwoman, Ms Rautio saw through the production of the Sami language guided entitled When your child gets sick, which resulted in hundreds of new healthcare-related words being added to the Northern Sami language.
Last May Ms Rautio was appointed to lead research at the University of the Arctic (UArctic). UArctic is in fact a network of 188 universities, universities of applied sciences and research institutes operating in northern regions. UArctic’s 44 thematic networks promote multidisciplinary cooperation in research and education.
In her work, Ms Rautio participates in numerous international work groups. One of these is the AMAP-group, which studies how Northern people, and pregnant women in particular, are affected by chemicals.
”I am very curious. This work requires going to areas where I haven’t been before.”
Research results bring change
Professor Arja Rautio, whose daily work involves analysing Northern living conditions and the impacts of climate change, does not let herself be discouraged even if leading world politicians deny the reality of climate change.
”Because a lot of high-level research is being carried out, research which gathers together and analyses data, I believe that it has an impact. The American presidential elections come round again every four years.”
Research work has already led to many changes throughout the world. For example, chemicals such as dioxins have been banned. The use of mercury has been restricted. One concrete tool is the Wash project, initiated by the Arctic Council, which currently continues its activities as a thematic network of the University of the Arctic and which aims to get governments to put their sewage systems into order.
”When, for example, a substance which causes hormone imbalance problems is banned or stops being used, the concentrations of the substance in seawater and sea mammals decreases immediately even on the other side of the world.”
”I wouldn’t do this research if I didn’t believe that by increasing knowledge and carrying out high quality research we can bring about results. This is long-term work.”
Text: Raija Tuominen
Main photo: Professor Arja Rautio (photo: Juha Sarkkinen)
Last updated: 11.1.2018