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Global action needed on Arctic contaminants: new human health report

Communication “is not a solution to the Arctic contaminant issues,” report says

By JANE GEORGE

Nunavut Health Minister Paul Okalik and Minnie Grey, executive director of the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services, are both attending the International Circumpolar Congress on Health in Oulu, Finland this week. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)


Nunavut Health Minister Paul Okalik and Minnie Grey, executive director of the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services, are both attending the International Circumpolar Congress on Health in Oulu, Finland this week. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

A blue-tinged sperm heads into an egg in a slide presented by Jon Øvind Odland, the co-chair of the health report, at a conference plenary June 9. Contaminants, which have affected sperm health among some Arctic men, are the subject of the 2015 Human Health in the Arctic report.


A blue-tinged sperm heads into an egg in a slide presented by Jon Øvind Odland, the co-chair of the health report, at a conference plenary June 9. Contaminants, which have affected sperm health among some Arctic men, are the subject of the 2015 Human Health in the Arctic report. “The real problem is in the Arctic,” Odland said. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

OULU, FINLAND — Poisonous contaminants continue to harm the health of many Arctic residents, says the soon-to-be-released 2015 Human Health in the Arctic report — but there are mixed messages from its authors about who should communicate what about health dangers linked to toxic industrial substances.

“Strong international efforts should be made” by world leaders to reduce the flow of mercury and other pollutants, old and new, into the Arctic environment, says a report from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme of the Arctic Council.

The report’s authors want global policymakers to know more about these contaminants and their impact on human health. That’s so that they will ratify and support global agreements to curb contaminants.

But there seems to be less urgency about communicating the same information about contaminants to Arctic peoples, who may not be well-informed about the risks incurred by consuming contaminants that can end up in traditional foods, like whales, bears and seals.

“Risk communication is not a solution to the Arctic contaminant issues,” says an extract of the report’s conclusions, which was distributed and discussed at the health conference.

Information about the risks posed by the health hazards of contaminants given to Arctic people through the media can be “misconstrued” and “create confusion,” says a summary delivered to conference participants June 9 by a policy consultant with Inuit Circumpolar Council-Canada, which authored a chapter on “risk communication.”

Nunavut Health Minister Paul Okalik, who’s also at the conference in Oulu, told Nunatsiaq News that “we want people to make informed decisions” — and that he supports providing more public knowledge about contaminants — even through the media.

Minnie Grey, executive director of Nunavik’s regional board of health and social services, also at the conference, said Inuit — especially those who participate in research studies — need to hear about the results of these studies.

Sometimes this even means issuing advisories to avoid Arctic foods containing lots of contaminants in favour of other traditional foods:

• in 2011, the Nunavik health board advised pregnant women not to eat beluga meat because beluga carries high levels of mercury, after studies found that exposure to mercury during pregnancy was associated with children’s poor intellectual function and attention at school; and,

• in 2012, five years after the 2007-08 Inuit Health Survey examined more than 1,500 Nunavummiut for an earlier contaminants assessment, health officials advised women of child-bearing age not to eat ringed seal liver for similar reasons.

Faroese public health expert Pál Wiehe, who started sending out health messages in 1998 against eating pilot whale meat and blubber, reported June 9 that contaminant levels among people in the Farøe Islands have decreased thanks to those health advisories.

Wiehe, one of the authors of the new Arctic human health report, told Nunatsiaq News in Oulu that he’s not in a favour of a “wait-and-see” attitude when the health of people is involved.

Here’s some of the information cited in the 2015 Human Health in the Arctic report, which shows what contaminants can do to health, depending on where you live and what you eat:

contaminants like mercury and lead can lead to decreased motor function, verbal abilities as memory as well as hyperactivity in kids who show high levels of these contaminants;

• higher mercury levels in adults can lead to high blood pressure and in kids to a decreased heart rate;

• in men, semen quality can be affected;

• contaminants may play a role in a big increase in Arctic cancer rates; and,

• high contaminant levels may affect the immune system, increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes and make childhood vaccinations less effective.

Eating seafood may mask the effects of mercury.

But climate change, which could cause temperatures to increase by up to 12 C by the end of this century, is likely to increase the impact of contaminants though thawing permafrost, melting ice and snow and increased flows in rivers. It will also bring in new animal-carried diseases to people and make food insecurity even worse, authors of the new health report said.

Mercury emissions are also expected to increase, although Canada’s domestic mercury emissions have dropped by 90 per cent in the past 30 years. That’s because more than 40 per cent of the mercury that ends up in Canada now comes from coal burned in other countries, especially China.

A summary of the 2015 Human Health in the Arctic report was delivered to policymakers at the Arctic Council held this past April in Iqaluit. You can read it here.

For more from the conference look later on Nunatsiaqonline.ca.

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