Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers



Toronto Star
5 March 2003

Mercury, PCBs may be affecting Inuit babies: Study

OTTAWA (CP) — A study of Inuit babies in northern Quebec has detected subtle nervous system and behavioural changes that appear to be due to mercury and PCB contamination.

It is believed to be the first scientific evidence that long-distance air pollution is affecting human health in the Arctic.

The study, led by Gina Muckle of Laval University and released today, focused on infants about 11 months old at three communities in the Nunavik region of Quebec.

The infants showed subtle differences in visual memory and maintaining attention, said David Stone, director of northern contaminants research at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

"What we're observing at the moment . . . is very subtle but statistically significant," said Stone, who was interviewed at a symposium on Arctic contaminants.

"We believe we are seeing effects that can be correlated both with mercury and with PCBs," he said. "The important thing . . . is exposure in the womb."

Stone said the same kinds of neurological effects were observed in studies of toxic contamination done in the Great Lakes and the Netherlands 20 to 30 years ago.

Long-range contamination of the Arctic became a concern after PCBs and dioxins were discovered in the blood and breast milk of Inuit mothers in the mid 1980s.

The Inuit are vulnerable because such pollutants tend to build up in the fat of fish and game animals, on which their diet is based.

Scientists face a dilemma because the health status of aboriginals who follow a traditional diet is spectacularly better than of those who have taken up the southern lifestyle, said Stone.

The current focus is on advising aboriginals how to reduce their risk of contamination while staying with the traditional diet. Some country foods are far more likely to be contaminated than others.

Northern leaders say there is a strong need for ongoing research and remedial action.

"This is an alarming situation for us," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chairwoman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference.

"We're not surprised now that there are subtle effects are coming through. We have a lot of questions here that need to be answered."

Most of the contamination in the Arctic comes from sources outside the region, often thousands of kilometres away.

Two international treaties have been negotiated to curb long-range pollution, and one of them is expected to receive enough ratifications to take effect this year.

Researchers say the levels of PCBs in the Arctic are beginning to decline but mercury has emerged as a major new concern.





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