IPEN International Pollutants Elimination Network

Human Rights, Health, and Lands of Arctic Peoples Endangered by Plastics, Petrochemicals and Climate Change

Trash and plastic waste with icebergs

With the Arctic warming nearly four times faster than the rest of the world, Native voices speak out on threats to the Arctic posed by plastic and toxic chemicals. Report also synthesizes evidence from more than 250 studies

Anchorage, Alaska-With the Plastics Treaty negotiations scheduled for this April 23-29 in Ottawa, a report released today synthesizes recent science on the interconnected threats from plastics, petrochemicals, and climate change that harm Arctic Peoples, with serious consequences for the viability of their communities. The report highlights the voices and testimony of Indigenous leaders who have witnessed these threats and who are engaged in local and global efforts to protect their land and People.

The report from Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), The Arctic’s Plastic Crisis: Toxic Threats to Health, Human Rights, and Indigenous Lands from the Petrochemical Industry synthesizes evidence from recent studies showing that plastics are made from fossil fuels and harmful chemicals (mostly petrochemicals, chemicals derived from fossil fuels). More than 16,000 chemicals are used in plastics: 91% are known to be toxic or lack hazard information and no plastic chemical can be classified as safe. Chemicals and plastics are a global health and environmental crisis and a recent study found that we have already breached the “planetary boundaries” for chemical and plastic pollution.


IPEN and its global network members have participated from the start of the Plastics Treaty talks, calling for a strong agreement that controls plastic production and eliminates toxic chemicals throughout the plastics life cycle.

The report shows that the extraction of fossil fuels from the Arctic, often near Indigenous lands, exposes Indigenous Peoples to toxic chemicals and impacts their land, water, and food security. Fossil fuels then create additional toxic exposures when they are used to make plastics and petrochemicals (including plastic chemicals). Plastic wastes and toxic chemicals from around the world are carried by atmospheric and oceanic currents to the Arctic, which acts as a “hemispheric sink” concentrating the toxic pollutants. This source-and-sink cycle leads to increased health problems for Indigenous Peoples, and to food insecurity as traditional food sources become scarce or contaminated.

“We’ve already seen over a thousand wells drilled near our community associated with oil and gas development. We see the changes to our lands and waters and these changes affect our daily lives,” said Dr. Rosemary Ahtuangaruak from Nuiqsut, Alaska, an Inupiaq scholar and activist and one of the Indigenous leaders featured in the report. “We should not have to worry that our kids will need help breathing because of oil development.”

In addition to Dr. Ahtuangaruak, the report includes comments from Indigenous leaders Delbert Pungowiyi, a Yupik Elder; Jasmine Jemewouk, an Inupiaq and Cherokee Native; Violet Yeaton, a Sugpiat advocate; and Vi Pangunnaaq Waghiyi. “As the First Peoples of Alaska, we have been stewards of our lands, airs, and waters. Now our People are being exposed to toxic chemicals without our consent. These are burdens we did not create but we face some of the most drastic changes here in the Arctic,” said Ms. Waghiyi, a Yupik grandmother and member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “We need a strong Plastics Treaty because current policies are not protective of our communities.”

The report details the long history of resource exploitation and colonization of Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ lands and waters, including by the fossil fuel/petrochemical industry. More than 13 million people from over 40 ethnic groups inhabit the circumpolar north region and are at risk from plastics, chemicals, and climate change. As the Arctic is warming at a rate nearly four times faster than the rest of the world, Arctic Peoples are now among the world’s first climate refugees.

Alaska has experienced a long history of toxic and polluting oil and gas operations. In North America’s largest oil field at Prudhoe Bay, the state has documented 2,259 crude oil spills, 790 drilling mud spills, and 99 releases of natural gas and methane since 1995. Just two years ago, an oilfield eight miles from Nuiqsut leaked 7.2 million cubic feet of natural gas, with 300 company personnel evacuated, while no provisions for evacuation were made for village residents. The impacts of plastic pollution in Alaska are also well documented. Earlier this year, microplastics were detected for the first time in the tissues of the Pacific walrus, an animal critical to the traditional diet of Indigenous Peoples of this region.

“Indigenous leaders and community activists in Alaska have long fought the oil and gas industry’s polluting operations, and our report demonstrates how plastics, petrochemicals, and climate change are all interconnected and tied to the fossil fuel industry’s toxic ways that threaten to devastate Arctic and planetary health,” said Pamela Miller, Executive Director of ACAT, global Co-chair of IPEN, and lead author of the report. “We call on world leaders to develop an ambitious Plastics Treaty that provides strong measures to protect human health, human rights, and the environment from toxic plastics.”

With fears that the shift from fossil fuels to electrification will impact profits, the fossil fuel industry plans continued growth by focusing on increasing plastics and chemical production. Industry projections suggest that oil and gas used for petrochemicals will increase from less than 20% today to as much as 50% by 2050, with plastics increasing to as much as 20% of all oil used. With warming opening more Arctic areas for exploration, industry plans to produce more plastics and chemicals, regardless of the harmful impacts on Arctic Peoples or increasing climate threats.

IPEN and Indigenous leaders will be in Ottawa to participate in the Plastics Treaty talks and to educate delegates about the threats to Arctic Peoples from plastics and petrochemicals. “The science is clear that plastics create intolerable toxic threats to the environment and our health,” said Therese Karlsson, Ph.D., a Science Advisor with IPEN and co-author of the report. “We therefore need a Plastics Treaty that addresses the overproduction of plastics and eliminates toxic plastic chemicals.”

To learn more, see the report, summary, and other information here.

About IPEN and ACAT

Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) works to assure justice by advocating for environmental and community health. ACAT believes that everyone has a right to clean air, clean water, and toxic-free food.

The International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) is a network of over 600 non-governmental organizations working in more than 120 countries to reduce and eliminate the harm to human health and the environment from toxic chemicals.