Technology & Science

Arctic health officials learn from PCB mistakes

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.

New approach focuses on choosing, not avoiding country foods

Toxins travel on air currents, condensing and revaporizing as they hop from place to place. But once they get to the Arctic, they don't revaporize. ((Emily Chung/CBC))
Toxins like mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) can travel long distances across the northern hemisphere on air currents. From time to time, they fall to the ground with rain or snow, but revaporize into the atmosphere when the ground heats up. In that way, they hop from place to place, said Eric Loring, senior researcher for the health and environment department for Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

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.

"When we didn't have those options, then we would eat very bad frozen pork chops, pizza pops — stuff that was just awful for you."

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."

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