N.W.T. mercury levels not flagged by scientists: official

The Northwest Territories' top health official says people living in the two regions where high mercury levels were found in lake fish should have been better informed about the problem by federal scientists.

Should have been clearer about public health implications of raw data: Kandola

The Northwest Territories' top health official says people living in the two regions where high mercury levels were found in lake fish should have been better informed about the problem by federal scientists.

People in the Dehcho and Sahtu regions were warned only on June 16  about higher than normal mercury levels in Trout Lake, Cli Lake, Lac St. Therese and Kelly Lake even though data on the elevated levels existed as early as 2008.

Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief public health officer, said Friday it took that long to issue an advisory because the initial information about the mercury presented by the federal Northern Contaminants Program (NCP) was too technical for local officials to understand.

The June 16 advisory from local public health officials warned people to limit their consumption of lake trout and other large fish from the four lakes since mercury can build up in fish fat and flesh.

Only later did residents of the two regions learn that they had been eating contaminated fish for two years without knowing it.

Too technical, says official

Data on mercury levels in fish from the lakes had been published in 2008 by the NCP.

NCP director Russel Shearer told CBC News NCP officials did their job by collecting and publishing their findings and that it is up to members of the territorial contaminants committee to get the word out about elevated mercury levels.

But Kandola said the NCP's information about the high mercury levels was buried in raw data.

Kandola admitted the NCP presented the raw data to community and territorial representatives of the N.W.T.'s contaminants committee during an annual workshop and some local meetings after the data was published in 2008.

But those meetings were too technical for local officials to be able to extract the implications of the data, Kandola said.

"It's a very intense workshop; it's fast-paced," she told CBC News in an interview. "Most of it is in a highly technical language. If you're from a small community, it can be quite daunting."

"In those rare, rare occasions where you do get elevated levels, you shouldn't be relying on a scientific workshop and a publication of scientific papers to have information understandable to the community members, and you shouldn't be relying on one person representing the entire region to let people know that this is of concern."

NCP should sift through data

Kandola said the NCP's work stops at data collection but that it should go beyond that and ask Health Canada to do a human health risk assessment when it finds data that has public health implications.

The NCP and its researchers should sift through their own data and flag abnormal results and ensure that, when necessary, a health risk assessment gets done, Kandola said.

"We need the flagging mechanism from the researcher and from the program, and it [has] to be directed and clear," she said.

Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya said it doesn't matter if the NCP released its data on mercury levels in 2008 when no one in his region knew about it until the public health advisory came out last month.

"They need to get the people in the communities involved," Yakeleya said. "You know, it's very simple. Why do they make it so complicated?"