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Arctic Science Journeys
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Arctic Diet Risky

INTRO: Pesticides, heavy metals, and PCBs are the inevitable result of industrialized, urban societies--they are not things you'd expect to find in the remote Arctic. Now, scientists in Canada say these and other contaminants are showing up in the wild foods eaten by the region's Inuit and Indians. Debra Damron has more, in this week's Arctic Science Journeys.

STORY: The first thing scientists point out is that it's still healthier for Inuit and Indians of northern Canada to eat caribou, whales, and other traditional foods. Whale blubber and seal meat, for example, lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, and they're a source of essential minerals, vitamins, and protein otherwise scarce in the Arctic.

The second thing they tell you is that contaminants like organochlorines, mercury, cadmium, and PCBs are accumulating in Canada's indigenous people at rates that cause concern. Russ Shearer is the chief of Environmental Services and Research at Canada's Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

SHEARER: "Levels that are being found in Inuit at coastal communities that are heavily dependent on marine mammals as a major source of nutrition in their diets are the ones in which we're finding among the highest levels. It's really a concern because they exceed guidelines set by our own Health Canada. Levels of these chemicals are anywhere from five to ten times higher than the Canadian national average."

Canada's findings echo those of eight other nations that found high levels of pesticides and other dangerous chemicals in the environment and people of the Arctic. Leslie Whitby is the director of Canada's Environment and Renewable Resources.

WHITBY: "The first thing to realize is that this is not just a Canadian problem. This is a problem we're finding throughout the circumpolar North. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program released their six-year study that documents for the first time the fact that these chemicals are accumulating across the Arctic. So the types of problems we've been dealing with these past five or six years are also showing up in Alaska and in Greenland, Iceland, and across the Russian north as well."

Scientists say at present levels, these chemicals pose little danger to adults. More of a concern, they say, is the health of children. Russ Shearer.

SHEARER: "The major concern is not the adults but actually children and the developing fetus. The unborn child may be at risk of subtle effects such as learning ability, memory, resistance to infection, those types of things. And they're passed from the mother to the child through the placenta and through breast feeding as well."

Studies to measure the impact on people from these chemicals are set to begin later this year. Also in the works are international efforts to eliminate the production and use of the most dangerous chemicals, especially pesticides and PCBs. Leslie Whitby.

WHITBY: "We don't manufacture or use most of these chemicals in the Arctic. They come from sources in the mid-latitudes, in developing countries and developed countries. But they find their way north on air currents primarily. We think that it's important that there be global action to reduce the usage or outright bans in some situations."

Whitby says Canada and other Arctic nations, including the United States, Norway, Greenland, and Iceland, are working through the United Nations to limit the use and production of such chemicals. In the meantime, Canadian health officials are recommending that Inuit and Indians continue eating their traditional foods. Jay Van Oostdam is an advisor with Health Canada.

VAN OOSTDAM: "The Inuit people define themselves by their hunting and gathering of their traditional foods. So to tell them not to eat their traditional foods means in some ways to tell them not to be an Inuit."

OUTRO: For Arctic Science Journeys, this is Debra Damron reporting from Fairbanks, Alaska.

Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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