Thunder Bay

New study adds to body of proof connecting mercury poisoning to health issues in Grassy Narrows

A recent study has been released and the findings from the report show evidence that the community’s exposure to mercury shows links between long term and past mercury exposure and current symptoms.

Study looked at past and current mercury exposure on the body, adds to established research on the issue

Grassy Narrows First Nation Chief Randy Fobister is calling for immediate action on a new report that says the mercury in the English-Wabigoon River system should be remediated. (

A new health study on people living in Grassy Narrows First Nation in northern Ontario has been released, suggesting past mercury exposure continues to impact the health of people in the community today. 

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health, included 391 adults in the community and adds to the previous research linking historical mercury poisoning of fish the community relied on with ongoing neurological issues that continue to this day. 

For decades, residents of Grassy Narrows, located about 80 kilometres north of Kenora, have been dealing with mercury contamination, which has impacted physical and mental heath, and the lives and culture of the Ojibway community of about 1,500.

Sixty years ago, mercury from a Dryden pulp and paper mill was first dumped into the English Wabigoon River, upstream from the First Nation. During the 1960s and '70s, the chemical plant at the Reed Paper mill dumped 9,000 kilograms of mercury into the river. 

Last summer, Ottawa promised to build a $68.9-million facility to care for people experiencing health impacts from the chemical. 

While the impact of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows has been acknowledged by many, including the federal government, Donna Mergler, one of the study's authors, said the results of this new study confirm the exposure is related to issues people face today.

"Past exposure, that is exposure in utero, which we call prenatal exposure, childhood exposure as well as lifetime exposure, is responsible for the health issues that people are living today," said Mergler, a physiologist and professor emerita in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Quebec. 

New research shows more than 90 per cent of the population at Grassy Narrows First Nation is experiencing symptoms of mercury poisoning. (Jody Porter/CBC)

It is estimated 90 per cent of the population in Grassy Narrows have symptoms of mercury poisoning. Those symptoms include neurological problems ranging from numbness in fingers and toes, to seizures and cognitive delays, even though the mercury entered the food chain decades ago. 

"That doesn't mean that the population is now safe and there's no more health problems," Mergler said. "The health problems that we're seeing, particularly nervous system dysfunction among the people of Grassy Narrows, is related to their previous exposure."

Mergler said one of the most important aspects of this study is that it shows the effects of the mercury poisoning are ongoing to this day. 

"The fact that people have been exposed right through that time to higher and then lower levels explains their health. And it's important in terms of treatment," said Mergler.

Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) First Nation, like many other First Nations in northwestern Ontario, have limited in-community healthcare access. It means residents have to travel long distances to access emergency healthcare services at the hospital in Kenora, Ont. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

Grassy Narrows Chief Randy Fobister said the study is further proof of the damage done to people in his community.

"People passing away at alarming rates, early, a short life span. It's still happening today. The Grassy Narrows people, their lives are cut short because of the poisoning," said Fobister.

"That study shows the effects of mercury and how far this poisoning goes."

Fobister said the results of the study will make people aware of how mercury poisoning, combined with residential schools, the child welfare system and other factors, affect people in the community. 

He also wants the medical community to read the study, and other organizations to create plans that include knowledge of the effects of mercury poisoning and develop treatment plans.

Fobister also said professionals working in the community need to be trained about the effects of mercury poisoning to better understand and help the community and their needs.

"This mercury study also shows it affects the brain and the decision making, this mercury poisoning plays a big part," said Fobister.