Diabetes is a “time bomb” in the Arctic: expert

Research shows pollutants are linked to higher levels of type 2 diabetes


COPENHAGEN — Diabetes is a ticking “time bomb” in the Arctic, says a public health expert at this week’s conference on climate change and pollution in the Arctic in Copenhagen.

That’s because the persistent organic pollutants found in the meat and blubber of marine mammals, like pilot whales, beluga and narwhal, are linked to the development of diabetes, said Philippe Grandjean from the University of Southern Denmark and the Harvard School of Public Health.

These man-made pollutants originate far to the south, where they’re used in agriculture and industry.

But they’re widely found in the Arctic.

Previous studies have shown that these pollutants can impair the intelligence, reflexes and immune systems of children.

Now, new research from the Faroe Islands also links these POPs to diabetes later in life.

The increasing prevalence of adult onset or type 2 diabetes, a chronic disease that occurs when the body can’t process the sugars in food properly, has been linked primarily to obesity and lack of exercise.

Depending on its severity, diabetes can lead to blindness, kidney failure, heart disease and sometimes even death.

Grandjean’s study, detailed in the May edition of Epidemiology, found that elderly Faroese with a life-long diet high in pilot whale meat and blubber run a much higher risk of developing diabetes, “in some cases more clearly in women.”

Their diet included traditional foods, like pilot whale meat and blubber, and seabirds such as fulmar and puffin.

About 25 per cent of the 700 elderly people in the study had type 2 diabetes.

However, many didn’t know they had diabetes before they were tested for the study.

So, throughout the Arctic many more people may have diabetes than now estimated, Grandjean said.

“It’s probably because they are untested,” he said.

The numbers of people with diabetes is likely grow among Arctic adults born between the 1950s and 1970s, who were exposed to more pollution in their traditional diet, he said.

Research indicates that diabetes has increased in Canada’s Inuit communities.

According to the 1991 aboriginal peoples survey, Inuit had a low rate of diabetes, only 1.9 per cent, compared with the Canadian population.

The overall official diabetes rate from Statistics Canada for 2006 for Inuit 15 stands at 2.6 per cent in all Inuit regions. For Nunavik, the rate is even higher, 4.4 per cent. That’s higher than the Canadian diabetes rate of 3.3 per cent, meaning that about three in 100 people have diabetes.

Some studies have already concluded the actual rate of diabetes among Inuit may be two or three times the rate of known diagnosed cases.

The “unprecedented” warming in the Arctic is expected to release more POPs stored in ice and snow and lead to wildlife absorbing more pollutants, scientists at this week’s conference say.

As for limiting POPs, the Stockholm Convention banned the use of the 12 worst pollutants in 2004. There are fewer traces of these 12 POPs — called the “dirty dozen” — in the Arctic.

This has led to a 60 per cent decrease in POPs among Canadian Inuit.

Btu despite the downward trends, there’s still concern about wildlife and humans, scientists say.

Since 2004, new POPs have been found to be toxic.

Last week, Endosulfan, a leading chemical used for more than 50 years against insects and mites in cashew, coffee and tea plantations, was put on the banned list.

Considered to be acutely toxic and extremely hazardous, endosulfan affects reproductive systems and is suspected to cause cancer in humans and wildlife.

Endosulfan has also been a major source of poisoning and deaths in Cuba, Benin and India, where people unknowingly came into contact with the pesticide.

While Endosulfan and other POPs are not used in the Arctic, they make their way north by “grass-hopping” through the air and water — and then they stay around.

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