North of 60
8/2/13 - Updates 8/5/13 - 8/12/13
Darkness in the land of the midnight sun
The Arctic, the top of our world, is in peril its ice melting, and the health of
its people under siege as the world's chemicals seep into the Arctic's
pristine landscape, accumulating in the food they eat and the water they
It's all about POPS. Persistent Organic Pollutants, or toxic substances that
persist in the environment, accumulate through the food web, posing a
risk to human health and the environment. POPS also tend to concentrate
in colder climates such as Canada's North.
Although the use of many of these chemical substances was either
banned or restricted under the Stockholm Convention in 2001, new
modern POPS regularly appear on the horizon. Today, climate change is
shuffling the deck, mobilizing old POPS while dispersing new ones through
new unpredictable pathways and causing the acidification of our oceans,
the Arctic Ocean more than any.
Our report 'North of 60' will look into the past, the present and the Next of
POPS in our world, from an environmental, human, healthcare and
perspective, with a focus on the Arctic, as a harbinger of things
This is the story of a people far up in the Canadian Arctic and their brutal
awakening to the realization that industrial activity thousands of miles away
is threatening their health and their way of life. This is the story of
Persistent Organic Pollutants or POPs. Chemical compounds that travel
far and wide on winds and water and accumulate in the cold air and waters
of the North, ending up in the fatty tissue of animals and fish. It is also the
story of Canadian leadership, of government and indigenous collaboration
and of the quality of Canadian research.
The story culminates in the signing of the Stockholm convention. Only to
be reborn on the wings of climate change and through the creation of a
new generation of insidious POPs.
It all started in the late 1980s when a team of researchers from Laval and
McGill Universities, headed by Dr. Eric DeWailly, first found high levels of
POPs in the blood and lipid tissue of Inuit women on Baffin Island and in
Nunavik, where the traditional diet largely consists of marine mammals,
fish, and wild game where POPS accumulate.
"Our research demonstrated that because of their traditional dietary
habits, Inuit populations are exposed to environmental contaminants
by eating their traditional foods, and their infants are exposed through
transplacental and breast milk transmission from the Inuit
mother". (De Wailly)
The publication of these findings caused a furor in media and government
circles which led to the creation of the Northern Contaminants Program
NCP in Canada, and to the circumpolar Arctic Environmental Protection
"For the first time, Inuit, Dene and Metis people were invited to
participate in a government initiative. Asked to help in determining
the research needs and research priorities of the newly created
NCP", says Terry Fenge, co-editor
of Northern Lights:Combatting
Toxic Threats in the Arctic
This was the beginning of a collaboration with indigenous peoples that
was instrumental to the signing of the international agreement in
It was some ten years later, in May 2001, that representatives of 111
nations gathered in Stockholm to sign a legally binding convention to
eliminate or reduce emissions of pesticides, insecticides, and other
industrial combustion byproducts also known as Persistent Organic
Throughout the negotiations, Sheila Watts Cloutier, then president of the
Canadian Inuit Circumpolar Council, played a strategic role, serving as
spokesperson for Arctic indigenous peoples.
"Cloutier attended all international negotiations and made several
interventions which resulted in the addition of a clause that singled out the
Arctic indigenous peoples and characterized POPs not only as a matter of
environmental protection but as a matter of public health . It was the first
global convention that mentioned indigenous people", says Fenge.
Today, we know through the work of several researchers, such as Gina
Muckle, Kue Young, Eric DeWailly in Canada and Joseph and Sandra
Jacobson as well as many other groups in the Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes region, in the United States that POP exposure can cause a wide range
of illnesses including disruption of the endocrine, reproductive, and
immune systems, as well neurobehavioral disorders and cancers.
But in a world where the regulatory process is often controlled by industry,
the burden of proof is hard to achieve. New families of POPs such as
flame retardants have greater toxicity at lower levels, and habits such as
smoking are easier to point a finger at than environmental pollution.
"These new organic pollutants are more toxic at lower levels and they're
present at lower concentration so we have to continually improve our
monitoring techniques. It's tough to say this exposure to chemicals is
causing this effect but of course we know. I don't feel it's an immoral leap or a
scientific premise to say that these exposures have an
effect", says Stephanie Meakin, Science Advisor for ICC Canada.
The problem in the North is compounded by the fact that traditional country
food is far more nutritive than the imported food that finds its way to the
According to DeWailly, "the Inuit diet, which is rich in fish and marine
mammals, has been linked to a lower incidence of thrombotic disease; this
beneficial effect can be attributed to the high omega3
fatty acid intake obtained from seafood consumption."
This creates a public health dilemma that is difficult to solve.
"Imported food is very expensive and the people are poor. What is
available often is not nutritious. And that's what came out after these
studies in the early 80s. People stopped eating country food and suffered
serious repercussions. So the territories have started issuing these
advisories saying maybe if you're pregnant don't eat as much muktuk or
whale, eat more fish because they have less fatty tissue", says Meakin.
In some regions of the Arctic, traditional food use is declining rapidly. For
many circumpolar regions, dietary intake from storebought
now exceeds those from traditional foods. As a result, in Greenland,
Alaska, and Canada, ischemic heart disease and diabetes
are on the increase among native populations.
(Young et al., 1993).
Today, climate change is shuffling the deck, mobilizing old POPS while
dispersing new ones through new unpredictable pathways and causing the
acidification of our oceans, the Arctic Ocean more so than any.
According to UNEP, "the efforts undertaken through the Stockholm
Convention may be undermined by climate change in several ways.
Climate change may affect primary emissions of POPs by changing their
rate of mobilization from materials or stockpiles, or altering use patterns.
Increasing ambient temperatures will directly lead to enhanced emissions
of POPS that volatilize from existing POPcontaining
As the permafrost thaws in the Arctic, current chemically polluted waste
sites are also beginning to leak their content into water systems and land
with consequences for human exposure.
"In the Arctic right now there is all this change in ice coverage from
multiyear ice to first year ice, renewed every year, and it's changing the
organic cycle. It's changing where animals go, how they forage, it's
changing the trapping and releasing of organic contaminants, everything is
shifting sands up there," says Department of Fisheries Oceanographer
"If an animals has to swim farther or fly further to get food, or eat food of
lesser value, it starts to metabolize more to survive which mobilizes its fat,
releasing these archived contaminants at the same time as it is suffering
from nutritional deprivation. Of course it will affect humans as well", he says.
The doctors and nurses we spoke to feel they lack the tools to deal effectively with POPS. Although groups such as the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), the international group Health Care Without Harm (No Harm) and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR)in the United States are working to promote sustainable health and speaking up against the profligation of pollutants, there is little doctors feel they can do in their day-to-day practice.
The fact is healthcare itself has contributed its fair share of pollutants to the environment.
According to No Harm, "By using excess energy, polluting the environment with phthalates, mercury and other toxic chemicals, and producing waste which is burned instead of recycled, healthcare is ultimately compromising public health and damaging the ability of future generations to meet their needs."
Medical incinerators were traditionally one of the the biggest culprits. Today thanks to the efforts of groups like No Harm, thousands of them have have been closed and the use of safer technologies and waste management practices is promoted.
As to evaluating and curing the effects of POPs in their patients, the dilemma persists.
In an email, the president of CAPE, Dr. Jean Zigby explains:
"Indeed there are lots of worrying things about POPs. Among them: doctors cannot test their patients or water for most of these compounds, and there is no accepted standard yet developed for a "safe" range, so docs won't know what to do with the results. We know everyone is exposed to some extent, but only a few are well studied enough to be measured in private or public health labs (like PCBs). Perhaps a "POPs panel" medical test will come along to help with this but, at present I am unaware of one in use by general doctors (toxicologists, Env./Workers Health and public health physicians likely have access to these).
Due to the non-specific nature of almost all side-effects (cancer, or developmental issues, for example), and that the suspected contribution of POPs is usually partial (i.e. not the SOLE cause of a problem), it is impossible for individual doctors to diagnose POPs as a cause, or even prove it contributed, as many, many other things may play a role in those illnesses as well.
This is the reason why docs must work to prevent exposures of their communities to POPs when there is a suspected risk."
Healthcare - North of 60
Here, the issue of healthcare and POPs is compounded by scarce resources, oil and gas developments and decommissioned mines.
Dr. Courtnay Howard is a member of CAPE who works as an emergency doctor in Yellowknife, NWT. Her home sits next to the remains of Giant Mine, a gold mine that produced 7.6 million ounces of gold between 1948 and 2004. When it closed, it left behind 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide, stored in solid rock in underground vaults as well as surface arsenic contamination. In 2011, after years of deliberation, the government decided that the only known solution is to freeze the toxic dust underground by pumping coolant deep into the mine, which in view of our warming climate, is causing concern.
"I have a great deal of skepticism, I have a billion-dollar waste site right in view of my house", she says. "They've approved the first two fracturing exploration wells in the territory without environmental assessment, and cut the water testing budget by 50%. Baker Creek runs right by my house, and if it gets contaminated it could affect the entire Great Slave Lake system. As humans we are very good at making big huge messes that we don't know how to clean up".
Northwest Territories, Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. André Corriveau agrees. He has been involved with POPs since the very begininng in the 80s. A colleague of Eric DeWailly at Laval University, he was involved in the intitial studies into the levels of PCBs in the breast milk of Inuit women in Nunavik. He says that environmental pollution is a difficult problem to deal with since the issues are international in scope and cannot be solved by one country alone.
"On day to day basis public health officers tend to focus on what is hurting their patients today" he says". Especially in the North where the number of health officers is small and healthcare positions can take months if not years to be filled".
Where public health can play an important role in POP awareness, according to Corriveau, is in documenting and dissimenating the issues, supporting researchers, getting involved when appropriate and lobbying to raise funds for future research.
Caught in the middle of a problem they had nothing to do with, Canada's northern people also have to deal with a health care system they do not understand and feel alienated from.
Dr. Darlene Kitty is a physician in Chisabi, a Cree community on the coast of the James Bay in Northern Quebec. Part of her work involves helping medical practitioners understand how to give the best care possible to their First Nations clients. She is also working at the national level to promote recruitment of first nations into the medical field.
"Physicians who work in isolated communities do frontline work. For me, I'm aboriginal so I can understand the cultural context up here and it helps with my patients. In our culture, water is a very important part of our connecion to the land. So patients worry that the water is making them sick because of the dams and the mines up here. Most communities don't have the resources to fight", she says.
The Indigenous Peoples of the North
Arctic Indigenous people are the first to notice the change in the world
they live in and the wildlife they fish and hunt.
Kylik Kisoun Taylor runs Up North Tours in the Mackenzie Delta, (if you want to chase a whale he's your guy) writes in an email. "Ya we are seeing changes in the fish here, there is not as much and the runs are coming at weird times.
We dont eat the livers of some of the fish and caribou anymore. And also the large caribou with big racks. I was talking to a heli pilot and he said they had to cut some in half just to get them in the door of the chopper and he does not see that anymore".
Daniele T'selie is a Dene from the Northwest Territories. He is studying to
be a lawyer but loves to go in the wilderness with his dad.
"Here in Port Hope, there is a type of fish we call it, burbot. Recent
tests done here have shown that the level of mercury they contain has
increased over the last few decades even though levels of mercury in the
environment have not. The only explanation for this is climate change. The
warmer water is increasing the rate of accumulation of methylmercury in
the fish. And fish is a staple food for our communities, he says.
Victor Kisoun who goes whaling in the Mackenzie Delta as did his father
before him, agrees.
"Something is happening because so many people are sick. Cancer has
affected my family in particular so I think there is something related to the
water and the animals transferring toxins from them to us. Some of the
animals are really sick. We have to throw out whole carcasses in some
cases. With more oil and gas development downstream its only getting
worse. And climate change is becoming ever more apparent. Kensal island
is melting out into the sea. Its very sobering every time I travel up there"
"The rate of cancer is increasing in the NWT," says Dr. Corriveau,"but the types of cancer we are seeing, such a lung, breast and colorectal cancer are largely linked to poor diet, alcohol and smoking. The smoking rate in the NWT is double the national average and while contaminants in food and water play a role, the issue of lifestyle takes precedence."
"Another big factor affecting our population here is that very few people under the age of 50 eat traditional food anymore, and climate change is impacting access to these foods for those who do."
Where do we go from here? We asked our experts:
"I am an optimist mainly because pessimism or depression lead you to
say we can't do anything about it so lets abandon it. Future generations
have not given us the permission to give up on the problem. It is our duty
and obligation to do what we can to mitigate it. And early mitigation is worth
far more than late mitigation. So the time for doing things is now."
Robie Macdonald, Oceanographer
"POPs is a significant and global public health issue but the Stockholm
convention has shown that with good will and partnerships between
indigenous peoples and national governments, successful remedial action
can be taken."
Terry Fenge, Author
"The continuing work will have to include new compounds such as short chain chlorinated paraffines. Our major challenge will be to continue the monitoring to be able to detect new compounds, to study their health effects if needed (but it takes such a long time!). For mercury, I am concerned that the reduction strategy will need much more efforts (fuel and coal combustion) and it is why in Nunavik, we will not wait for environmental decline but are now acting to promote Arctic char (very little contaminants and a lot of nutrients) through a distribution program for pregnant women."
Eric DeWailly, Director, Public Health Research, Laval
"Mercury is a persisant pollutant that goes right
up the food chain, and the top of the food chain is
the nursing infant. I found that baby belugas have much
more pollutants in their tissue than their moms because the chemicals are
transferred to the baby belugas. I was nursing at the time, it made me cry."
Maye Thompson, PHD Nursing, Environmental Health Program Director, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, mother.
- Posted 8/12/13
"The Arctic has been subjected to the most dramatic environmental effects of globalization. From persistent organic pollutants to our weakened ozone, and, most recently, to the huge changes to our lands and ice from climate change. We are, as the astronauts say, the ground truthers of these observations, those who confirm the observations made from high above whether through satellites or climate models.
The people whose lives depend on the ice and snow for cultural survival must be a central component of all our plans. We must not permit the discussion of northern development to be conducted only in terms of sovereignty, resources and economies. The focus must be on the human dimension, human communities and protection of human cultural rights. We cannot separate political and economic development in our communities from the education, health and well being of individuals and families."
Sheila Watts-Cloutier, Former President ICC canada