NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – March 19, 2019 – Pál Weihe is caught between the culture and traditions of the Faroe Islands in the Arctic, east of Iceland, and his desire to protect the residents from marine pollutants that have found their way to this remote region from industrialized countries.
The pollutants, called poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances or PFASs, are chemical compounds found in common household goods like non-stick cookware, stain-proof carpets, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags and many others – as well as in fire-fighting foams and other industrial products. Because they do not break down easily in the environment, they find their way into the food chain, including into the whales that are a traditional food source of the Faroe Islanders.
“The average exposure level on the Faroes is not much different from that of Americans, there’s just a different transfer mechanism, “ said Rainer Lohmann, URI professor of oceanography who leads the STEEP (Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of PFASs) program, a five-year research and outreach project funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that aims to learn how to detect the chemical compounds, how they get into water supplies, and how they harm human health. “The research Pál is doing is directly related to what we’re doing here – identifying the biomedical effects of PFASs.”
Weihe, the medical director of the Faroese Hospital System and head of the nation’s Department of Occupational Medicine and Public Health, will present a lecture at the University of Rhode Island Thursday, April 11, at 3:30 p.m. about his work to minimize community exposure to the contaminants. His lecture, “PFASs Around the Globe: Effects on Human Health of Oceanic Pollutants in the Arctic,” will be held in the Coastal Institute Auditorium, 218 South Ferry Road, on the URI Narragansett Bay Campus. The event is the University’s 7th Annual Scott W. Nixon Lecture held each year by the Coastal Institute in memory of the GSO estuarine scientist who would have celebrated the study of PFASs.
“Pál is going to talk about the health studies he’s done on the island and how he realized there was a major problem in this remote community – a place that’s far from anything to do with chemical production – and how he was so alarmed by what he found that he had to take action to protect his neighbors,” said Lohmann.
Because of their remote location, Faroe Islanders eat primarily whales, fish and birds, since little else is available most of the year.
“When Pál realized the high contaminant burdens in the whales, he embarked on an effort to change the tradition of eating whale products on the islands,” Lohmann said. “He stepped in and said that they shouldn’t eat whale meat any more, especially women who planned to have children. It’s had the effect he wanted – most women eat very little or no whale any more – but some people say that he’s destroying their culture and tradition. He says he had no choice.”
A visiting scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Weihe has overseen the examinations of more than 3,000 Faroe Islanders for five studies of exposures to marine contaminants. He is also the co-leader of one of URI’s STEEP research projects.
For more information about the STEEP program or the April 11 lecture, visit https://web.uri.edu/steep.