Traditional lifestyles with extensive use of food from sea mammals, wildlife and birds eggs make Arctic peoples extremely vulnerable to accumulation of toxins, POPs (persistent organic pollutants) and heavy metals. Indeed, Indigenous peoples in the Artic have some of the highest known exposures to these chemicals even though have not used or benefited from industries associated with them.
POPs include a wide range of industrial chemicals; as well as those produced as a by-product of industrial processes. Indigenous peoples and other northern residents who depend on traditional food sources may suffer negative side effects due to long term exposure to these pollutants.
POPs pose serious health and environmental risks, as they are often toxic, stay in the environment for long periods of time allowing them to be transported large distances from their sources, and have a tendency to accumulate in mammals and concentrate in the food chain. Indigenous peoples in the Arctic depend on traditional diets. It is an important part of their cultural identity and a vital source of nourishment. Other sources of food often do not exist. In eating their traditional diets they are exposing themselves to POPs that accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals.
Figure 13. Contamination pathways. Many POPs (persistent organic pollutants) and heavy metals from emissions further south are accumulated in Arctic food chains and ultimately in indigenous peoples. While fear of these compounds sometimes has resulted in abandonment of traditional foods, this has also led to more unhealthy food habits acquired from non-indigenous peoples. Most indigenous peoples in smaller communities still supply a large share of their household foods from natural resources.
Figure 14. PCBs in the blood of Arctic indigenous peoples.
Figure 15. Mercury levels in the blood of indigenous women of reproductive age.
Mercury is one of the most toxic heavy metals. The main manmade sources come from the burning of fossil fuels and garbage. The effects of mercury poisoning have been observed in the neurological, sensory and reproductive systems in mammals, fish and birds. Mercury is a nerve toxin that can damage the brain. Young children and the growing fetus are vulnerable during critical stages of brain development. Mercury poses serious health and environmental risks. Mercury is a global contaminant, transported over long distances by air currents from sources in the industrialized world, as well as from rapidly developing industrialized regions in Asia and Africa. Mercury emissions are expected to increase with the demand for coal, especially in China. There is evidence of higher levels in the Arctic and in humans in the region (AMAP, 2003). Indications also suggest these levels are increasing (AMAP, 2003). Some groups of indigenous peoples in Greenland and in Arctic Canada have been found to have very high exposure to mercury (AMAP, 2003). Daily mercury intake resulting from eating traditional foods exceeds WHO recommendations; consequently, mercury concentrations in indigenous blood samples are above WHO recommended levels as well (WHO, 2001; 2002).