Keep eating traditional food but ditch smoking, researchers tell Old Crow residents

The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation examined the level of contaminants, like cadmium and mercury, in the bodies of 77 Old Crow residents.

The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation examined cadmium and mercury levels in 77 community members

Some traditional food sources have been found with measurable levels of mercury and cadmium in their systems, which led researchers to study how many contaminants are getting passed on to humans. (Alyssa Sgro/Submitted by Mary Gamberg)

The benefits of eating traditional foods far outweigh any risks from eating them, although there are actions people can take to reduce their exposure to certain contaminants.

That's the main message of a study led by the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, which examined the levels of cadmium, mercury, uranium and other naturally-occurring and human-made contaminants in the bodies of 77 people who live in Old Crow.

"Traditional food is safe to eat," said William Josie, VGFN executive director. 

Porcupine caribou, a staple food for the Vuntut Gwitchin, as well as some species of fish, have been found with measurable levels of mercury and cadmium in their systems. That led researchers to study, as part of the federally-funded Northern Contaminants Program, how many contaminants are getting passed on to humans.

Participants in Old Crow gave blood, urine and hair samples to researchers last February. A team of researchers was back in the community this week, sharing the results. 

University of Waterloo researchers took blood, urine and hair sample from 77 Old Crow residents in February 2019. (Alyssa Sgro/Submitted by Mary Gamberg)

Smoking can cause elevated levels of lead, cadmium

While the levels of most contaminants were found to be within health guidelines, the study did find that a small number of participants had higher than average levels of lead in their systems. 

"I was surprised to learn that lead was a bit high in a couple individuals," said Josie. 

Mary Gamberg, a Whitehorse-based research scientist specializing in contaminants in Arctic wildlife, said the lead levels aren't concerning, but are something to keep an eye on. She said the research team doesn't know where it's coming from. 

"We've tested the water at the water treatment plant and it is not elevated. It could be from lead bullets that have been used in the past."

Gamberg said people can take steps to reduce their lead exposure. 

"The top one is to reduce or eliminate smoking because you do get lead from cigarettes, the other is to stop using lead bullets if you're still using lead bullets, and then third is to look in your house and see if you are have lead pipes or lead paint." 

Smoking can also lead to elevated cadmium levels, which were found in a few of the participants. Cadmium, a metal that occurs naturally in lead-zinc minerals, is also present in some traditional foods.

Limit certain foods, as per recommendations

The Yukon government recommends people limit their consumption of moose livers and kidneys to one a year, because cadmium accumulates in those organs. 

There are also recommendations for limiting exposure to mercury. 

Mallory Drysdale, PhD student at the University of Waterloo, presents study findings in Old Crow. (Mary Gamberg)

"We have a recommendation in Old Crow to limit the loche [burbot] and inconnu for women of child-bearing age and children to one to two servings per week," said Mallory Drysdale, a PhD student at the University of Waterloo, who was also in Old Crow sharing results this week. 

"Otherwise, other fish like salmon and whitefish are really low in mercury and really high in healthy omega-3 fats so we recommend people continue to eat those," she said. 

The study gives the Vuntut Gwitchin benchmark data, should it decide to do further testing in the future. 

It also reassures the community that traditional food is safe to eat.

"Just follow the recommendations in our territory and you'll be fine," Josie said.