Science / Film
”Pharmaceutical pollution” in the Arctics explained in Emmy-nominated filmmaker’s new documentary
Norwegian scientist shares what can be done to reduce unwanted compounds in areas which we consider to be relatively clean.
24 Mar 2023

Ida Beathe Øverjordet (pictured) works as a senior research scientist in ecotoxicology at SINTEF Ocean in Trondheim. Her research is about identifying the presence and effects of contaminants in the environment. 

— I am particularly interested in the Arctic marine environment, she explains, finding new pollutants and in that way contributing to regulations on different levels. I have worked with many types of contaminants, for example, mercury and other elements, oil pollution, and production chemicals. Lately, I have been focusing more on pharmaceuticals and personal care products that are released to the environment through for example sewage. We find compounds like ibuprofen, paracetamol, antibiotics, and antidepressants in the animals in the Arctic, which is believed to be a relatively clean area. The pharmaceuticals do usually not stay long inside the body, which means that there have to be sources in the marine environment that keeps the body concentrations of the animals up.

Øverjordet’s research has now been featured in Emmy-nominated and award-winning documentary filmmaker Ian Cheney’s latest documentary, The Arc of Oblivion, which explores different ways that humans try to preserve their history and memory as well as the traces we unintentionally leave behind in nature. 

— These traces can be preserved for thousands to millions of years, while things we try to preserve may be lost. My part is about the pharmaceuticals I mentioned that we find in the Arctic. The film crew came with me on fieldwork in the small research settlement Ny-Ålesund which is located 79 degrees north in the Norwegian Arctic. We went out on the workboat to collect samples and I was interviewed about what we found there.

Behind the scenes at The Arc of Oblivion. Photography: Lacie Setsaas

The international premiere took place a few days ago, at CPH:DOX festival in Copenhagen.

— It was fantastic — really a new and memorable experience for a scientist… After the film, Ian was interviewed on stage. Our picture was taken and it will be printed on a tile to be conserved, perhaps for eternity, in an Austrian salt mine by one of the other participants in the film. This far exceeded what I had in mind when Ian first contacted me about some filming in the Arctic! says Øverjordet. She continues:

— The part about pharmaceutical pollution is captured and presented to the point and in a thought-provoking way. I have had feedback from several who saw it that it was really surprising and interesting, something that they had never thought about before. For me, that was exactly my hope of how it would be received when I joined the project.

The Arc of Oblivion.

And what can be done in order to reduce pharmaceutical pollution?

— Several things. The main one is to improve sewage treatment and have regulations in place that demand sewage treatment in areas where it is currently not present. This is not only a problem in the Arctic but a global challenge. Work is in progress and about to improve in the EU area at least. For the specific area we were studying, some treatment has been installed, but there is still room for improvements to reduce pollution even further. Then there is the social aspect, to make people aware of the problem and in particular, be mindful not to throw medication in the sink or toilet. 

— Another aspect that is mentioned in the film is the fact that cruise ships and other boats are allowed to release untreated sewage in the marine environment. Regulations are in place for the areas near shore, but outside the 12-mile zone, raw sewage can be dumped, even in the Arctic. The number of visitors from, amongst others, cruise ships in the Arctic is exploding and in many areas far exceeding the number of local inhabitants. The infrastructure is not prepared for this, neither on land nor in harbours that could potentially collect the waste from the ships so that it was not dumped at sea. Together with political and social scientists, we are aiming to raise awareness of this and hopefully contribute to stricter regulations in the future.

And for you, what’s next?

— I will continue this research. We recently got funding for an EU project under the Mission Restore our ocean and waters where Arctic sewage pollution is one of our cases. We will work on evaluating different sewage treatment options, and the impact on the receiving waters, and design social campaigns that hopefully will raise the awareness of tourists and inhabitants to these issues and help prevent pollution. In the project, we will work together with authorities and other stakeholders to design the best solutions that could be replicated and upscaled throughout the Arctic. As a part of that I will be going to Greenland in June this year to participate as a teacher in a summer course organized by DTU in Denmark and then more fieldwork in Ny-Ålesund. This will be my focus for the next three years — at least, Øverjordet concludes.