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Ancestral Diet Gone Toxic

The Arctic's Inuit are being contaminated by pollution borne north by winds and concentrated as it travels up the food chain.

January 13, 2004|Marla Cone | Times Staff Writer

Dewailly contacted the World Health Organization in Geneva, where an expert in chemical safety told him that the PCB levels were the highest he had ever seen. Those women, the expert said, should stop breast-feeding their babies.

Dewailly hung up the phone, his mind reeling. He knew that mother's milk is the most nutritious food of all, and that Nunavik, located on Hudson Bay, is so remote that mothers had nothing else to feed their infants. As a doctor, he couldn't in good conscience tell them to quit breast-feeding. But he knew he couldn't hide the problem, either.

"Breast milk is supposed to be a gift," said Dewailly, who today is among the world's leading experts on the human health effects of contaminants. "It isn't supposed to be a poison."

Nearly a generation has passed since those first vials of breast milk arrived in the Quebec laboratory. The babies Dewailly agonized over are now 16 years old, about to pass to their own children the chemical load amassing in their bodies.

Top of the World

From ice-clinging algae to polar bears, the Arctic has a long and intricate ladder of life. An estimated 650,000 indigenous people inhabit the top rung, and their population is steadily growing. About 90,000 are the Inuit of Eastern Canada and Greenland -- a territory of Denmark under its own home-rule government. Others, spread across eight nations and speaking dozens of languages, include the 350,000 Yakuts of Siberian Russia, Alaska's Inupiat and Yup'ik, and Scandinavia's Saami.

Environmental scientists suspect that industrial chemicals first hitched a ride to the Arctic in the 1940s.

The chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, originate in the cities of North America, Europe and Asia. They travel thousands of miles north via winds, ocean currents and rivers. In the Arctic, the sea is a deep-freeze archive, storing contaminants that are slow to break down in cold temperatures and low sunlight. Ingested first by zooplankton, the chemicals spread through the food web as one species consumes another.

Scientists say the Arctic's water and air are much cleaner than they are in urban environments. PCBs and DDT in the fish and mammals of such areas as the Great Lakes, the Baltic and the North Sea are 10 to 100 times higher in concentration than in the Arctic Ocean.

But most urban dwellers consume food from a host of sources, eating comparatively limited amounts of seafood and no marine mammals or other top predators high on the food web. Instead, they consume mostly land-raised foods with low contaminant levels.

lnuit, by contrast, eat much like a polar bear does, consuming the blubber and meat of fish-eating whales, seals, walruses and seabirds four or five links up the marine food chain. Contaminants, which accumulate in animals' fat, magnify in concentration with each step up, from plankton to people.

In newborns' umbilical cord blood and mothers' breast milk, average PCB and mercury levels are 20 to 50 times higher in remote villages of Greenland than in urban areas of the United States and Europe, according to a 2003 report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, or AMAP, a scientific consortium created by the eight Arctic nations, including the United States.

In far northern villages such as Qaanaaq, where the Kristiansens live, one of every six adults tested exceeds 200 parts per billion of mercury in the blood, a dose known to cause acute symptoms of mercury poisoning, according to a 2003 United Nations report.

"That's a huge amount of mercury," said John Risher, a mercury specialist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's toxic substances agency. "At that level, I would really expect to see effects, such as paresthesia, an abnormal sensation, tingling or numbness, especially in the hands."

Few details are known about Russia's Siberia, but AMAP scientists are expected to soon release data showing that residents of the region are more contaminated than Greenlanders. In contrast, Alaska's Inupiat carry low concentrations because they eat bowhead whales that are low on the food web.

PCBs and DDT, the so-called legacy chemicals banned three decades ago in most developed nations, peaked in the Arctic in the 1990s and since then have declined, although they remain at substantially higher levels in people there than elsewhere.

Other compounds are increasing, including mercury and brominated flame retardants called PBDEs. Much of the mercury comes from coal-burning power plants, largely in Asia, while the United States is the major source of the flame retardants, used in plastics and polyurethane foam.

Evidence has emerged recently that the contaminants are threatening the health of Inuit infants and young children.

"Subtle health effects are occurring in certain areas of the Arctic due to exposure to contaminants in traditional food, particularly for mercury and PCBs," according to a 2002 AMAP report.

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