Contaminants in the Circumpolar north: the nexus between indigenous reproductive health, gender and environmental justice

An Excerpt


Contaminants, which primarily originate from industrial activities conducted in areas remote from the North, may pose a threat to the short- and long-term health of Arctic environments. These contaminants bio-accumulate in the fatty tissues of marine mammals and other species and biomagnify as they move up the food chain. Contaminants are then consumed by humans in some traditional foods (Cameron and Weiss 1997, Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme 1998, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada 2003). Studies on the impact of contaminants on human health are often linked to the use of traditional foods by Indigenous peoples (Egan 1996, Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme 1998, Duhaime 2002). These foods represent the mainstay of the Indigenous diet in many communities across the circumpolar North and provide more substantial nutrients including protein, iron and zinc than do imported foods. Traditional foods also feature significantly in the cultural and spiritual lives of many Northern Indigenous communities (Kuhnlein et al. 1996, Kuhnlein et al. 2001, Blanchet et al. 2002). As quoted in Egede (1995: 72):

Inuit foods give us health, well-being and identity. Inuit foods are
our way of life. . . . Total health includes spiritual well-being. For us
to be fully healthy, we must have our foods, recognizing the benefits
they bring. Contaminants do not affect our souls. Avoiding
our food from fear does.

Researchers cannot state definitively that contaminants are the sole cause of specific ailments in the North or even that they are significant contributors. This is due to many factors. For example, a conflicting body of evidence exists highlighting both the benefits and risks of consuming traditional foods; other variables (genetic disposition, whether an individual smokes, consumes alcohol, etc.) must be taken into consideration when assessing the effect of contaminants. Moreover, the population of most Northern communities only allows modest sampling sizes (Dewailly and Furgal 2003, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada 2003). However, scientific results detecting elevated levels of contaminants in tissue, blood and breast milk samples cannot be ignored.

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