Researchers see 'very reassuring' early results in N.W.T. contaminants study

The initial results represent 330 participants from six communities. Around 98 per cent of participants had mercury levels below the health guidance value - a baseline to assess health risks.

University of Waterloo researchers test Sahtu and Dehcho residents for arsenic and mercury

Kakisa Lake in Kakisa, N.W.T. Kakisa was one of six communities that took part in a 2016 study looking at the levels of contaminants in residents. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

Researchers have been busy delivering good news to residents in the N.W.T.'s small communities.

Two years ago, a team from the University of Waterloo took hair, urine and blood samples from people in the Sahtu and Dehcho regions — they were testing the levels of contaminants, such as mercury and arsenic.

"From the contaminant side of things, the results have been very reassuring," said Brian Laird, a professor of toxicology and environmental health at the University of Waterloo.

Brian Laird is a University of Waterloo professor of toxicology and environmental health.

He said around 98 per cent of participants had mercury levels below the health guidance value — a baseline to assess health risks.

"What these results are really showing… [is that] most people's levels of exposure and risk to those contaminants have remained low," Laird said.

Now, the researchers are bringing back the preliminary results to some of the participating communities, such as Kakisa, Fort Providence and Jean Marie River.

The initial results represent 330 participants from six communities.

The study also looked at the foods people were eating. Around 30 per cent of participants had eaten traditional foods the day before the samples were taken.

Kakisa's chief, Lloyd Chicot, said he's encouraged by the results of the study.

"We thought that because of the global change, the increase in mercury, that we might be ingesting more than the rate your body can take, but it turned out the other way," he said.

Chief Lloyd Chicot says he's encouraged by the results of the study in his community of Kakisa. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

Chicot said some residents were particularly worried flooding in 2014 would have led to an increase in contaminants such as mercury in the area.

"Some people were afraid that the run-off from the burn into the creeks where the fish spawn might be an issue."

But the study shows that's not the case, according to the researchers.

Chicot said he is glad residents decided to participate, even though studies like these make some people nervous.

"There's the fear that, well maybe, we'll be over-studied," he said.

"But it's good."

Comparing regions

So far, the results show the residents have a comparable range of arsenic to other Canadians, but it's not that simple.

There are different forms of arsenic, and the different forms have different risks. The funding for the current study doesn't include research on these different types of arsenic.

Laird said the team is looking for funds to do that analysis later.

He said the goal of the study is to "help answer the important question of — what does that mean for my health and my family's health?"

The researchers will compare the level of contaminants between the Sahtu and Dehcho regions. When all of the samples have been assessed, they will return to the communities to deliver the results and talk about next steps.