Our (Not So) Pristine National Parks: 70 Contaminants and Counting
Image courtesy of backpackphotography via flickr
The verdict is in and it ain't pretty: Our cherished, "pristine" national parks and monuments are wallowing in filth - more specifically, a wide variety of pollutants such as heavy metals, airborne contaminants and pesticides. In a piece for the AP, Matthew Brown reports on the results of a 6-year federal study - the Western Airborne Contaminants Assessment Project - on the state of the Western U.S.'s national parks; the results indicate the presence of high levels of contaminants in the 20 parks and monuments - even in remote locations like the high Rockies and northern Alaska. A large proportion of the contaminants is believed to have come from overseas - mostly from Europe and Asia.
Some of the usual suspects - mercury, DDT, PCBs - make an unwelcome return, often accumulating in dangerously high levels in fish, according to Oregon State University fish expert Michael Kent, who co-authored the study. The contaminants exceeded human consumption thresholds in 8 of the surveyed parks; mercury and DDT levels also exceeded the predator consumption thresholds. Image courtesy of WACAP
Several airborne contaminants were found to cause male fish to develop female organs. The researchers were dismayed to find that much of the contamination came from local agricultural areas close to the parks; this despite farmers switching over to pesticides with much shorter half-lives in recent years.
Parks located at higher elevations or in colder climates were - perhaps counterintuitively - found to be at higher risk for contamination. This, Kent explains, is because airborne pollutants carried over in clouds from other countries drop out attached to rain drops or snow when they encounter mountains; as a result, mercury from Chinese power plants, for example, is found in high concentrations in the Rockies.
At this rate, it's hard to imagine how many truly pristine areas - if any - will be left in the world by the end of this decade.