Arctic health officials learn from PCB mistakes
New approach focuses on choosing, not avoiding country foods
Once they get into the Arctic, however, they don't revaporize, Loring said. "And they start building up in the environment."
As toxins move higher up in the food chain, from invertebrates to fish to marine mammals, they become more concentrated. That's a big human health concern in the Arctic, where people top the food chain, eating large predators such as seals and whales.
In the 1980s, when Inuit communities first heard about organic toxins like PCBs and DDT in their food, they began to fear some of their healthiest practices.
"People stopped eating their country foods; people stopped breastfeeding," said Loring, who has lived most of his adult life in remote northern villages and camps. "People stopped hunting, because they were scared of potentially harming their children."
The problem was that there weren't a lot of other options when it came to food. Fresh produce is scarce where poor soils and permafrost make farming difficult, and many communities have no roads connecting them to the south, making transport expensive.
Pork chops, pizza pops
Loring said country foods like seal, fish, walrus and caribou made up 80 to 90 per cent of his diet when he lived among the Inuit.
Traditions surrounding food are also an important part of Inuit culture and family life, which were being threatened by concerns over toxins.
Public health officials realized they needed to change their approach.
Elena Labranche was part of a public health team that travelled through Nunavik offering pointers on how to choose country foods that minimized the risk of eating too many contaminants. The team suggested that people should make misirak — a traditional gravy of liquefied blubber — from seal fat instead of beluga fat, because it had lower levels of PCBs. They also advised which fish had lower levels of toxins.
Now, levels of PCBs and other organic toxins are declining, but public health officials are sending similar messages about mercury.
"You don't have to change your diet," Labranche said, "just change to less contaminated foods."