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Contaminant Research Program Will Die March 31
Nunatsiaq News
Jim Bell

A research program that's just starting to generate detailed knowledge about toxic substances in Arctic country food and their effects on humans will die at the end of this month.

During a three-day conference in Ottawa this week, researchers working with the Northern Contaminants Program presented the results of their work for what may be the last time.

That work includes a study from Nunavik showing contaminants such as PCB and mercury may be having "subtle effects" on the brains and nervous systems of infants born to mothers who eat large amounts of marine mammal food.

Dr. Joseph Jacobson, a developmental psychologist at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, has discovered brain and nervous system damage in children born to mothers who ate PCB-laden fish from the Great Lakes. Jacobson found that such children had poor motor skills, learning problems, and scored below average on intelligence tests.

The northern program's research - funded for the past 10 years by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development - shows many Canadian Inuit carry similar levels of PCB in their bodies. But now there's no money to study how PCB and other pollutants affect the Inuit health.

The unborn children of expectant mothers are at greatest risk - because PCB and other pollutants pass into their bodies while they're still in the womb.

Studies show that 73 per cent of Inuit women have PCB levels in their blood up to five times higher than Health Canada's guidelines. For other persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, up to half of the Inuit studied have contaminant intakes about 20 times higher than Health Canada guidelines.

For Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and other northern aboriginal leaders, this demonstrates why DIAND should continue the northern contaminants program for another five years at least.

"How widespread is this? What are the long-term effects from generation to generation? There are a lot of questions that remain to be answered," Watt-Cloutier said.

She added that without the program, Canada can't meet it's commitments under the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty on the worldwide reduction of POP emissions signed in 2001.

"You can't have the Canadian government, which has been at the forefront in banning these substances globally, leaving us out in the lurch without further money to do the research. If this were happening in southern Canada, we wouldn't even be having this discussion about why the program should be continuing," Watt-Cloutier said.

For now, the ICC and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami still say the health benefits of eating country food, especially marine mammal food, outweigh the threat posed by the environmental contaminants contained in it.

But they say expectant and nursing mothers should think twice about eating too much marine mammal food. That's because blubber-rich food from the sea is far more contaminated than food from the land.

"It's about giving information so that women can make the choices. When you are expecting or nursing or when your children are very young ... there are certain choices that would be better for you to make," Watt-Cloutier said.

Research results from the past five years of the northern contaminants program are contained in a 960-page document called the Canadian Arctic Contaminants Assessment Report II, or CACAR II for simplicity.

The program, headed by DIAND, brought together representatives from ICC, ITK, the Dene Nation, the Council of Yukon Indians, the Nunavik Nutrition and Health Committee, various territorial government health and environment departments, and three other federal ministries.

Aboriginal leaders are using this week's Ottawa meeting, held to present the CACAR II report, to launch an aggressive lobby aimed at continuing the program.

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