Toxins in a Fragile Frontier
CBC News | May 14, 2004
For centuries, the Inuit of Canada's North have hunted. While they've felt the pressures of modern life, many still lead remarkably traditional lives, spending their days hunting for their own food, mainly seals, whales and caribou.
But now scientists and environmentalists are saying the food they've always relied on may soon be unsafe to eat. It's contaminated with high levels of some of the world's most dangerous chemicals. They're known as persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, and they're concentrated in Canada's Arctic.
They're a concern to Inuit hunters like Meeka Mike and her friend Joshua Kanguk. Most of their lives have been spent out on the land and the sea. Even though there are two grocery stores in Iqaluit, Meeka and Joshua get most of their food from the land. They have no appetite for chips, pop, or chicken wings.
"I don't eat seal every day," says Meeka. "Depending on our catch. If my family catches some then I'll have some. Last week we had seal at least four times for supper. But I think the average Inuit family eats it a lot more often than I do, than my family does."
Meeka can't imagine life any other way. This is how her ancestors lived, and this is how she was raised. But now she's hearing disturbing things. People are saying the seals she hunts and feeds to her family are becoming increasingly toxic. They're poisoned with persistent organic pollutants.
"I hear of people talking about pollutants in the food we eat," Meeka says, "But it's hard to say how much is in it. They say there are contaminants in the food but we're still eating it."
Half a world away, in Geneva, Craig Boljkovac is worried too. He's a senior program co-ordinator with the United Nations Centre for Training and Research. He's spent the past six years at the World Wildlife Fund in Canada, learning about the dangers of persistent organic pollutants.
Boljkovac says, "these are probably the most dangerous toxic chemicals that we know of and they're dangerous in an insidious sort of way in that it takes very low levels of these chemicals, once they're released into the environment, to affect human health potentially, and the health of animals and the environment."
What makes these chemicals persistent, is that they stay in the environment for a long time. DDT and PCBs, for example, don't break down for decades. What makes them particularly dangerous to the North, is that they evaporate in the warm air where they're produced - usually much further south - and are blown to colder regions. Experts call this the 'grasshopper' effect. The chemicals hop up to the Arctic and then get trapped there, because it's too cold for them to evaporate again.
According to Boljkovac, "they build up in the ecosystem and things like beluga, narwhal, seals...they tend to collect in the fat of the organism. Let's say you're eating seal blubber, and the seal itself, the fat in the seal can be pretty high in a relative sense, of PCBs or DDT, which is a POP pesticide...and therefore you're taking it right into your body."
That's not good news for hunters like Meeka Mike. She will catch a seal and bring it home for dinner that same night. Harp seals will be fed to her dogs. And those seals will likely have high levels of POPs, levels much higher than Health Canada deems safe.
THE PROBLEM SPREADS
Research done by the federal department of Indian and Northern Affairs shows that Inuit women throughout the territory of Nunavut have DDT levels in their breast milk that is nine times higher than what it is in southern Canadian women.
The UN's Craig Boljkovac says Meeka and other women have every reason to be worried about the food they eat. Over the past few years, he's read and reread the studies on persistent organic pollutants, many of which were done by Canada's federal government. The most recent one was done by the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States.
The studies all conclude that the vast majority of POPs are coming from places much further south. In the case of DDT, most of it originates in tropical areas of Africa, Asia and Central America.
There, DDT is still used in large quantities to control malaria, which kills more than a million people a year. DDT was banned in Canada, the United States and most developed countries in 1972. But poorer countries still rely on it. They see it and other chemicals, such as PCBs, as a way to develop their societies and improve their economies, just as Canada and many other countries did decades ago.
John Crump, president of the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, thinks we're walking a fine line when we tell those countries to stop using DDT. He says, "Countries in the developed world...have used these substances and now banned them, in many cases. Certainly we don't use DDT in Canada, PCBs are being phased out. It's morally difficult for us to say to countries in the southern hemisphere and the developing world and economies in transition in what used to be the Soviet bloc, and say to them, OK now, you guys need to clean up your act."
In the capital of Nunavut, Iqaluit, the problem of DDT poses a painful dilemma for Sheila Watt-Cloutier. She's the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in Canada.
There are few people who campaign more vigorously against persistent organic pollutants than she does. Almost non-stop over the past few years, she has been in the face of governments, pressuring them to act. "I push really hard, not only at the national level but at the international level especially, for the world to understand what is at stake here. Because anyone who has that eye into our world will understand the kinds of challenges we're already confronting and we're already up against. But the last thing in the world we need now is to be fearful of the very country food we need to nourish us back to health and well-being."
Although DDT was never used in large quantities in Canada's Arctic, there are other persistent organic pollutants that are to this day being released into the environment here. They're called dioxins and furans. At the Iqaluit garbage dump, ravens and seagulls pick at the bits of food and anything else that's remotely edible. The smoke never seems to drive them away, and it serves as an enduring image for environmentalist Craig Boljkovac.
"Every time I've flown into Iqaluit," he says, "even if its 40 below in the middle of January, the dump is on fire. Garbage is being intentionally burned, space is at a premium in the Iqaluit dump, but you can repeat that scene in every community in the North and very many in the south as well. The problem with that is every time you burn plastic in an open fire, if it contains chlorine, and most plastics do, you create POPs. You create dioxins and furans. And dioxins have been found to be toxic, they can cause cancer and other more subtle effects in human beings at very, very low levels."
It's not only humans that are feeling the effects of these pollutants. In recent years some elders and hunters have reported bizarre physical abnormalities in the seals they catch. Now researchers want to know if these abnormalities are being caused by POPs - those persistent organic pollutants.
The Wildlife Board in the Baffin region of Nunavut, along with World Wildlife Fund Canada, is conducting a study. Susan Sang is a scientist with World Wildlife Fund Canada. She says they have asked elders and hunters what kind of changes they have been seeing in their harvested animals. They also asked the hunters what they think caused abnormalities.
"Most of the abnormalities they have seen are physical. They have seen polar bears with less fat, hairless seal, for example. Another thing they have seen, and they have seen it more recently, are seals and walrus with burn-like holes on their skin, so that's something we should really figure out the cause of."
So far, no link has been established between these abnormalities and the increased concentration of POPs in the Arctic. But the suspicion is strong that these pollutants could be an important factor. Whether the focus is animals or humans, the effects on health from exposure to dioxins, DDT, PCBs and other POPs are well-documented, according to John Crump, from the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee.
He says recent research shows: "There are connections between various kinds of POPs and immune problems in human beings. Developmental problems in children have been identified in some communities. There's a lot of different kinds of health effects that are measurable and not measurable."
Time is also ticking on the global stage. The Canadian government has been working under the United Nations Environment Program to find a way to eliminate POPs. Since 1998, Canada and 120 other countries have been trying to develop a treaty that would force countries all over the world to stop producing persistent organic pollutants altogether.
Steve Hart works at Environment Canada and is Canada's lead negotiator for the treaty. He says the issue is important, "because in effect this is a convention where a lot of the northern countries, especially Canada and some Nordic countries, and especially the Arctic, are the net receivers of these things that come from other countries...where they've got to be convinced that they shouldn't use these things and they should phase them out."
It's a big job, and it's not an easy one. The challenge will be for Canada and other rich countries to convince poor nations that it will be worth the pain and cost to stop producing POPs. That's the job of John Buccini, who works at Environment Canada and is the chair of these negotiations. He says the convention will require major change in many societies, in many countries of the world.
A few months ago, Canada's environment minister, David Anderson, put $20 million on the table to help make that happen. He's promised the money will go directly to poorer countries, with the idea that it will benefit Canada's Inuit.
The money isn't nearly enough, and Anderson recognizes this. The total cost of getting rid of POPs worldwide is often estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars or more.
Anderson and many others are hoping, even praying, that Canada's contribution will pressure other rich countries to pull out their wallets.
Help couldn't come soon enough for hunters like Meeka and Joshua.
This reporter joins them on a hunt. When a seal is shot, it looks to me like we've encountered a crime scene. A seal bobs on the surface, the water stained with blood in all directions. Meeka grabs a hook and gets hold of the seal before it sinks.
The seal is dragged ashore and butchered on the spot. It takes only minutes, then Meeka begins preparing lunch. Nothing goes to waste. Joshua and Meeka will feed most of this seal to their dog teams. In a matter of minutes, the work is done and all that's left is a blood stain on the rocks.
It's time to head home.
That night, Meeka invites me to the home of a friend for an evening of entertainment and to share another traditional Inuit meal. Our host is Sheila Watt-Cloutier from the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. She's brought us together with two foreign journalists in the hopes she can convince others of the importance of the Inuit diet. We dine on muktuq, char, caribou stew.
Some of the guests aren't sure what to think of the muktuq - skin and fat of a narwhal, cut into small cubes. It has a pungent flavour and is as hard as cartilage to chew.
No one is expecting us to take a box of muktuq home, but Sheila Watt-Cloutier is hoping we'll take the story of the food away with us. She wants the world to know that the food that sustains Inuit is now starting to poison them. And she wants us to know that in future years, we might not need to go all the way to the Arctic to find food that's full of POPs.
"We've always said that the Arctic is just the canary in the mine. It is only a matter of time until everybody will be poisoned by the pollutants that we are creating in the world."
"You can't fool people here," she continues. "It's going to take a long time, it's going to take decades probably. Some of the more optimistic scenarios say that it will take 10, 20, 30 years until you see the levels really going down, and it all comes back to that genie being let out of the bottle. Once they're let into the atmosphere, they take years to break down naturally into other things that aren't harmful. And that's a real problem."