Thunder Bay

New report calls for 'urgent action' over mercury poisoning of Grassy Narrows youth, mothers

A new report shows mercury poisoning of the English-Wabigoon river system is having serious, detrimental effects on the health of youth and mothers in Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation).

Fish consumption from contaminated river linked to a multitude of health problems in community

A report released Thursday by Grassy Narrows First Nation shows the consumption of fish from the mercury-contaminated English-Wabigoon river system is the cause of health problems among mothers and youth in the community. (Jody Porter/CBC)

A new report shows mercury poisoning of the English-Wabigoon river system is having serious, detrimental effects on the health of youth and mothers in Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation).

The second part of the Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek Community Health Assessment Report — which focuses on children and youth — was released today at a media conference at Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

It recommends the creation of a learning centre, which could both provide healthy food to women, including those who are pregnant, and educate them about the dangers associated with mercury poisoning. Also included in the report's recommendations is the creation of emergency and long-term programs for children and youth, which would focus on emergency and crisis counselling, and improved medical and neuropsychological assessment and therapy.

The report was compiled through a survey of more than 170 questions, filled out for 353 Grassy Narrows youth, and results show consumption of fish from the English-Wabigoon river system, particularly during pregnancy, is the cause of health issues among the community's youth.

While the health of 78 per cent of girls and 70 per cent of boys in the community is rated very good or thriving, a number of chronic health conditions were diagnosed. They include:

  • Mental health, emotional and behavioural problems
  • Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Learning disabilities
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Eczema or dermatitis
  • Language or speech disorders
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Anemia
  • Visual problems requiring glasses
  • Ear infections

The report notes that while many of these issues are also experienced by youth in other First Nation communities in Canada, youth in Grassy Narrows are demonstrating "a higher prevalence of the chronic conditions and emotional and behavioural issues that are associated with maternal fish consumption during pregnancy."

Grassy Narrows is located about 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora. Former owners of a mill, located upstream from the community, in Dryden, dumped industrial effluent containing mercury into the English-Wabigoon river system in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ontario has committed $85 million to clean up the river, while Ottawa has said it will fund a treatment centre.

Further, the report states, children whose maternal grandfather had been a fishing guide exhibit a higher likelihood of being in the care of Child and Family Services.

The report goes on to connect the consumption of fish from the English-Wabigoon river system to many of the diagnosed chronic health conditions.

For example, women who ate at least one fish meal per month during pregnancy were twice and likely to have maternal health problems during pregnancy. Those could include high blood pressure, or gestational diabetes.

The report notes that "this finding is independent of 'drinking a lot or taking drugs during pregnancy.'"

Further, youth whose mothers consumed one fish meal a month during pregnancy were two times more likely to have visual problems, and three times more likely to have chronic ear infections when compared to youth whose mothers hardly or never ate fish during pregnancy.

Children of women who at fish once a week or more during pregnancy, meanwhile, are:

  • Twice as likely to have visual problems
  • Three times as likely to have chronic ear infections or overall, general health issues
  • Four times as likely to have a learning disability, a condition that affects school performance, and at least one nervous system disorder.

These results, too, are independent of other possible determinants, like age, health problems, or difficulties during childbirth.

The report also notes that "fishing and fish consumption have been traditional and cultural practices of the people of Grassy Narrows for hundreds, if not thousands, of years."

The report makes several recommendations, including creating programs that would provide emergency counselling and crisis intervention for youth, which would be overseen by a full-time child psychologist, a traditional counsellor, and elders.

The report also calls for medical and neuropsychological assessment and therapy for youth in the community, and an increased awareness of the effects of mercury poisoning among teachers, principals, health care professionals, and social workers.

The report also recommends the creation of a learning centre, which would raise awareness of mercury poisoning and its effects, and provide nutritious meals for women who are of child-bearing age, or who are pregnant.

A similar report focusing on adults in the community was released earlier this year. It showed only 21 per cent of people in Grassy Narrows reported their health as being "good or excellent," compared to 40 per cent in other Ontario First Nation communities, and 60 per cent of non-Indigenous people in Canada.

That report also showed people diagnosed with mercury poisoning were more likely to have a neuropsychological disorder, stomach and intestinal problems, hearing loss, joint pain, or blindness or vision problems.