Have you ever wondered how certain chemicals, toxins, and contaminants wind up in areas where they were not initially, for example, in the Arctic? Well, this can be explained by the grasshopper effect. It may not be directly related to an actual insect; however, it does mimic one in some way. Let’s talk about bioaccumulation, biomagnification, and the grasshopper effect.
The Grasshopper Effect
The grasshopper effect describes how chemicals, toxins and metals such as mercury and lead can move from one region to another by wind or differences in temperature (UNEP, n.d.). When released into the environment, certain chemicals can evaporate at higher temperatures. From there, they may ride wind cycles until they reach cooler temperatures, where they will condense and be deposited, often vast distances from where they were initially produced. This can leave some people to deal with the aftereffects, although they may not have been the ones to cause the problem in the first place. Once deposited, these contaminants can accumulate and pollute living organisms and the environment (UNEP, n.d.). As global temperatures continue to rise due to global warming, chemicals may evaporate more readily, increasing the concentration further (UNEP, n.d.).
Grasshopper Effect and the Arctic
Contaminants are especially a big concern in the Arctic as that is where the highest levels of persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, including Polychlorobiphenyls (PCBs) and Polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs), have been found in the blood of Indigenous people living there. There have even been found to be pesticides in their blood, although there is little agriculture there. There are two ways that pollutants may build up in one’s body. The first is by bioaccumulation, which is an increase in the concentration of pollutants over time. This could be accumulating more pollutants as you get older due to increased length of exposure. The other way is by biomagnification, where the increase in the concentration of contaminants moves up the food chain by consuming those below them. This would be like if a larger fish ate a bunch of smaller ones that were contaminated, causing the bigger fish to be contaminated as well and to a higher degree. Following this trail of logic, those at the very top of the food chain often end up with the highest levels of pollutants, which would be us (UNEP, n.d.). This is especially disastrous to communities that may rely on traditional marine food, such as Indigenous communities in the north (UNEP, n.d.).
An Example of Bioaccumulation
To discuss how dangerous bioaccumulation can be, let’s look at a case from Minata, Japan (Evans, 2021). Between 1932 and 1956, many residents suffered from muscle weakness, numbness, paralysis, and even death (Evans, 2021). It was found that this mysterious disease, later named Minamata disease, had come about from local seafood, which had high heavy metal concentrations (Evans, 2021). The seafood consumed had been contaminated by methylmercury in the wastewater released by a nearby chemical factory (Evans, 2021). Methylmercury can bioaccumulate in fish, shellfish, and other seafood, and cause poisoning (Evans, 2021). Therefore, when people consumed seafood, they got poisoned (Evans, 2021). Even though the methylmercury may not have even started remotely close to other humans, it ended up affecting thousands of people, which shows just how dangerous bioaccumulation can be and the reality that many remote communities in the Arctic may be facing due to climate change.
Is there a way to protect yourself?
Now that you know more about bioaccumulation, biomagnification, and the Grasshopper Effect, here is what you can do to protect yourself. Reduce your exposure to bioaccumulation and biomagnification as much as possible (Epic Water Filters, n.d.). You can do this by consuming foods primarily found in the lower levels of the food chain, such as fruits and vegetables, to avoid chemicals as much as possible, and making sure to filter your water (Epic Water Filters, n.d.).
With regard to the larger issue, we need to consider implementing regulations to limit the release of these toxic substances into the environment (Epic Water Filters, n.d.).
Epic Water Filters. (n.d.). Bioaccumulation & Biomagnification of Heavy Metals and Toxic Chemicals. Epic Water Filters. Retrieved Jun 21, 2023 from: https://www.epicwaterfilters.com/blogs/quick-drips/bioaccumulation-biomagnification-of-heavy-metals-and-toxic-chemicals-pfas-microplastics#:~:text=Eating%20a%20diet%20rich%20in,high%20levels%20of%20toxic%20substances.
Evans, E. (2021). A History Lesson About Bioaccumulation From a Small Town inJapan. The Safina Center. Retrieved Jun 22, 2023 from:https://www.safinacenter.org/blog/a-history-lesson-about-bioaccumulation-from-a-small-town-in-japan
UNEP. (n.d.). Grasshopper effect services pollutants onto plates of Arctic peoples. UNEP. Retrieved Jun 22, 2023 from: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/grasshopper-effect-serves-pollutants-plates-arctic-peoples