Arctic Science Series: Contaminant Monitoring in the Arctic Archipelago

Liisa Jantunen is a research scientist who has devoted her career to studying contaminants in the Arctic. She joined Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) as a student, and never left! For the past 15 years, she has been leading projects on research that monitors contaminants in air, water and sediment through the Northern Contaminants Program under Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. Her research studies Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) such as pesticides and flame retardants in addition to microplastics and plastic associated chemicals which are considered of Emerging Arctic Concern.

Research Scientist, Dr. Liisa Jantunen, explains that it is important to study contaminants as many accumulate in the Arctic where levels of concentration can be higher and long-term impacts are unknown. “Certain substances are considered forever chemicals as it is hard for the environment to break them down,” she says. Fluorinated chemicals, or polyfluoroalkyl substances, are known for strength and durability, which is an asset in their application in industrial and consumer products, but also means that they remain in the environment for a long time. One example is Scotchguard, a commonly used fabric and upholstery protector.

For this work, samples are taken throughout the Arctic from the Canadian Coast Guard ship Amundsen, an icebreaker, as a part of ArcticNet. This past September, Liisa had a team of three students aboard to collect air, water, sediment and zooplankton samples. One of those students is Max Dubeau from the Environmental Technology Program at Nunavut Arctic College. “I wanted to learn more about the work that scientists were doing up here and what my career options would be in science,” Max says. “I want my work to focus on the north and my home. I want to work to better my community and territory and to help protect it as it develops.”

Max spent thirty days aboard the Amundsen where he learned how to collect sediment with a box corer – a sampling tool that is dropped to the bottom of the ocean and dragged back up full of sediment. Max also worked with a rosette sampler that collects water from the ocean while recording data, such as temperature and depth. For other water samples, Max says it was as simple as throwing a bucket overboard and hauling water back up. All samples collected along the Amundsen’s course throughout the Canadian Arctic Archipelago were sent to ECCC’s Centre for Atmospheric Research Experiments to be analyzed in Liisa’s lab.

Liisa’s research also involves monitoring for contaminants in several northern communities. She notes that this work is fluid and the scope is always changing in response to changes in the environment and changes to the chemicals used by industry. “We create baselines of data so we can see how the Arctic is changing based on how much of a certain chemical is being used and then we can assess the effects of climate change. We also look at baseline concentrations of contaminants in the Arctic to see if national and international regulations are effective at reducing concentrations.” That work requires coordination on a global scale as the chemicals that Liisa monitors enter Canada and the Arctic from around the world. “We are part of a bigger picture,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important to be a part of international conventions, like the Stockholm Convention, with global tracking.”

As Liisa reflects on her body of research in the Arctic, she notes that she hasn’t done it alone! The study of contaminants in the Arctic involves working with other ECCC scientists as well as partnerships with other federal government departments, academia and northern communities. Liisa meets with northern residents and leaders of Inuit and First Nation organizations such as the Hunters and Trappers Organizations to ensure her research responds to the needs of the communities. She does science outreach at local schools, colleges, and community centres. Liisa looks forward to travelling again when it is safe to do so to continue this important work and to share the results of her research.