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Polar Times

Aleut communities in charge of environmental health

Over half of the Aleut households in the Aleutians and Pribilofs eat marine mammals and selected sampling has shown higher than normal levels of contaminants in their blood. More cooperative efforts are needed, as well as continued monitoring. By Victoria Gofman

For thousands of years Aleuts have relied on marine resources for their survival. Traditional foods continue to be critical for individual and community health. Over 90 percent of the households of the western Aleutian village of Atka consume marine mammals, mostly sea lions and harbor seals. Over 70 percent of the households of St. Paul in the Pribilofs consume marine mammals, predominantly northern fur seals. Because of this dependence on sea mammals, Aleut communities have become a driving force behind efforts to better understand the risks associated with environmental contaminants and the potential effects on public health.
In the year 2000, the State of Alaska conducted testing for Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in blood samples from human subjects in five Aleutian and Pribilof Island villages. The results showed higher than normal levels of some contaminants, including Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and Dichlor-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane (DDE). These findings have raised new questions about the fate and transport of POPs and the need to study the exposure level and impacts.
Another study from this area is focusing on the most sensitive members of the population: mothers and newborn infants. Ten Aleut tribes are enrolled in the Alaska Native Traditional Food Safety Monitoring Program, which monitors contaminant levels in blood, hair and urine. Health care providers obtain dietary data from the mothers and follow the health of children for several years. In September 2003, the project was extended to include Russia’s Aleuts and other indigenous peoples from the Kamchatka Peninsula and Commander Islands. The expansion of this program is the first step in creating an international environmental health-monitoring network in the Bering Sea region.

More cooperation needed
One of the challenges with contaminants in indigenous peoples food is the lack of collaboration between communities, scientists and healthcare providers on studies about contaminants pathways in Aleut communities in charge of environmental health monitoringorder to improve public health. The rise of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity makes it necessary to reassess not only the risks but also the benefits of a traditional diet.

New projects happening
St. Paul and Atka are currently working with regional and tribal agencies on a four-year contaminants study: Dietary Benefits and Risks in Rural Villages. This study provides a model for village specific assessments of contaminant concerns and the broader implications of diet from a public health perspective. The project addresses several issues: levels of pollutants, nutritional value in traditional vs. available commercial foods and health consequences of dietary change based on epidemiological data about diabetes, heart disease and other emerging village health problems.
The process includes dietary surveys to determine types and quantities of foods consumed, testing of traditional food samples for contaminants (PCBs, pesticides, radionucleides, and heavy metals) and nutrients, as well as community education. Hiring village-based coordinators and research assistants enhances the effectiveness of two-way communication and makes local residents active participants in the research and remediation of the impacts.
A video documentary about the project features Aleuts speaking about the significance of traditional food. This film provides an opportunity for the non-indigenous audiences to acquire insight into native lifestyles and to understand the interconnection between the native people, diet, environment and health. The Aleut community strongly believes that an understanding of the importance of diet to native culture is critical to the successful collaborative research.
Aleut tribes and organizations are actively engaged in finding ways to ensure a healthy environment and lifestyle for their people. They have established partnerships with scientists, government authorities and policy makers, and have begun developing local capacity to perform on-going research and monitoring. The growing understanding of the transboundary
nature of the environmental impacts calls for international collaboration where the Aleut organizations could become valuable partners.

VICTORIA GOFMAN is the executive director of the Aleut International Association (AIA), an Alaskan Native non-profit formed by the Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association (regional consortium of 13 Aleut tribes in the United States) and the Association of Indigenous People of the Aleut District of the Kamchatka Region of the Russian Federation. AIA is a Permanent Participant in the Arctic Council. The organization’s mission is to facilitate international cooperation aimed at protection of the environment, health and sustainable development of the Bering Sea region and to rebuild ties between the American and Russia’s Aleut people.
The Dietary Benefits and Risks in Rural Villages is administered by the Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association (A/PIA). Principal researcher is Michael Brubaker, A/PIA Community services director. For more information go to www.apiai.com.
The Traditional Native Food Program in Kamchatka is administered by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Aleut International Association. Principal researcher is Dr. James Berner, ANTHC. For more info e-mail victoriag@apiai.com.