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The Environmental Specimen Bank

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Miljøprøvebanken directly translates as “The Environmental Specimen Bank (ESB Norway)”. The bank is an archive for the future, containing environmental samples from across the nation. The bank will be an important tool in the fight to combat pollutants both nationally and internationally.

ESB Norway contains frozen samples of animals, plants, air and mud from across Norway and the Arctic. The samples become time capsules preserving the present environmental state, so that they can be analyzed using the knowledge of the future.

Lessons from the past

Norway needs an environmental sample bank because history is riddled with examples of substances invented by humans that are initially considered to be useful, but later turns out to be harmful environmental pollutants.

Environmental pollutants are substances that are persistent, accumulate in living organisms, and are toxic.

One example is the insecticide DDT, which was invented in 1939. DDT was intensively used for decades, until scientists realized that it harmed and killed birds of prey, and could cause cancer in humans. Tetraethyl lead (TEL) was invented in 1920 and used as an additive to gasoline for many years because it increased engine efficiency and lowered fuel consumption. In the 1990s leaded petrol was phased out due to the increasing knowledge of its toxic effects on the environment.

A future without pollutants

So far, we have been looking for known pollutants such as PCB, mercury and PAH when analyzing environmental samples.

ESB Norway will store samples for years to come. This will enable future scientists to analyze the samples for pollutants we are not aware of at present, and possibly also aid authorities in identifying measures to remedy any environmental problems caused by these pollutants.

The state of Lake Mjøsa

In 2002, alarming levels of brominated flame retardants (PBDEs) were discovered in fish in the largest lake in Norway, Mjøsa.

Fortunately, scientists had stored samples of vendace, a small freshwater whitefish, from Mjøsa yearly since 1993. By analyzing these samples they found out that PBDE-levels started to increase in 1997-1998. The sudden increase indicated that point emissions caused the elevated levels, prompting the pollution control authorities to introduce new and stricter regulations for the use and emission of PBDEs.

Today, the levels of PBDEs in fish from Mjøsa are back at the low levels seen prior to 1997.

The national environmental sample bank

The story about the flame retardants in the lake ended as a success story because Norway’s largest lake had a local environmental sample bank.

We are probably using chemicals today that will be proven to be pollutants in the future. The samples stored in ESB Norway can be used to identify the presence of these substances in the environment as early as possible.

ESB Norway will contain samples from all over Norway, thus providing us with  a new and helpful tool in the fight against environmental pollutants.

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ESB Norway is owned by The Ministry of Climate and Environment and managed by The Norwegian Environment Agency. The daily operations are attributed to CIENS as a national assignment. CIENS is a strategic research collaboration between independent research institutes and the University of Oslo.

CIENS is a leading national and international center for inter-disciplinary research on the environment and society.

The Environmental Specimen Bank is organised and developed in accordance with the recommendations from members of the expert group:

  • Elisabeth Lie (leader), Norwegian Institute for Water Research 
  • Geir Wing Gabrielsen, Norwegian Polar Institute
  • Bjørn Munro Jenssen, Norwegian University for Science and Technology 
  • Anita Evenset, Akvaplan-niva
  • Martin Schlabach, Norwegian Institute for Air Research
  • Bente Nilsen, Institute of Marine Research
  • Sara Danielsson, Swedish Museum of National History
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