Ancestral diet gone toxic


Arctic: The Inuit are being contaminated as PCBs and other pollutants of modern society reach their hunting grounds in extraordinary amounts.

January 20, 2004|By Marla Cone | Marla Cone,LOS ANGELES TIMES

QAANAAQ, Greenland - Pitching a makeshift tent on the sea ice, where the Arctic Ocean meets the North Atlantic, brothers Mamarut and Gedion Kristiansen are ready to savor their favorite meal.

Nearby lies the carcass of a narwhal, a reclusive beast with an ivory tusk like a unicorn's. Mamarut slices off a piece of muktuk, the whale's raw pink blubber and mottled gray skin, as a snack.

Peqqinnartoq, he says in Greenlandic. Healthy food.

Mamarut's wife, Tukummeq Peary, a descendant of famed North Pole explorer Robert E. Peary, is boiling the main entree on a camp stove. Family members dip hunting knives into the kettle, pulling out steaming ribs of freshly killed ringed seal and devouring the hearty meat with some hot black tea.

Living closer to the North Pole than to any city, factory or farm, the Kristiansens appear unscathed by any industrial-age ills. They live much as their ancestors did, relying on foods harvested from the sea and skills honed by generations of Inuit.

But as northbound winds carry toxic remnants of faraway lands to their hunting grounds in extraordinary amounts, their close connection to the environment and their ancestral diet of marine mammals have left the Arctic's indigenous people vulnerable to the pollutants of modern society. About 200 hazardous compounds, which migrate from industrialized regions and accumulate in ocean-dwelling animals, have been detected in the inhabitants of the far north.

The bodies of Arctic people, particularly Greenland's Inuit, contain the highest human concentrations of industrial chemicals and pesticides found anywhere on Earth - levels so extreme that the breast milk and tissues of some Greenlanders could be classified as hazardous waste.

Nearly all Inuit tested in Greenland and more than half in Canada have levels of PCBs and mercury exceeding international health guidelines.

Perched atop a contaminated food chain, the inhabitants of the Arctic have become the industrialized world's lab rats, the involuntary subjects of an accidental human experiment demonstrating what can happen when a heaping brew of chemicals builds up in human bodies.

Studies of infants in Greenland and Arctic Canada who have been exposed in the womb and through breast milk suggest that the chemicals are harming children. Babies suffer greater rates of infections because their immune systems seem to be impaired; their brain development is altered, slightly reducing their intelligence and memory skills.

Scientists say the immune suppression could be responsible, at least in part, for the Arctic's inordinate number of sick babies. They believe the neurological damage to newborns is similar in scope to the harm done if the mothers drank moderate amounts of alcohol while pregnant.

The tragedy for the Inuit is that they have few, if any, ways to protect themselves. Many Arctic natives say that abandoning their traditional foods would destroy a 4,000-year-old society rooted in hunting.

In this hostile and isolated expanse of glacier-carved bedrock and frozen sea, survival means that people live as marine mammals live, hunting like they do, wearing their skins. No factory-engineered fleece compares with the warmth of a sealskin parka, mittens and boots. No motorboat sneaks up on a whale like a handmade kayak latched together with rope. No snowmobile flexes with the ice like a dog-pulled sledge crafted of driftwood.

And no imported food nourishes their bodies, warms their spirit and strengthens their hearts like the flesh they slice from the flanks of a whale or seal.

"Our foods do more than nourish our bodies. They feed our souls," said Ingmar Egede, the late Greenlandic educator who promoted the rights of indigenous peoples. "When many things in our lives are changing, our foods remain the same. They make us feel the same as they have for generations.

"When I eat Inuit foods, I know who I am."

In 1987, Dr. Eric Dewailly, an epidemiologist at Laval University in Quebec City, was surveying contaminants in breast milk of mothers near the industrialized, heavily polluted Gulf of St. Lawrence when he met a midwife from Nunavik, the Arctic portion of Quebec province. She asked whether he wanted to gather milk samples from women there. Dewailly reluctantly agreed, thinking it might be useful as "blanks," samples with nondetectable pollution levels.

A few months later, the first batch of samples from Nunavik arrived by air mail at the lab in Quebec City.

Dewailly soon got a call from the lab director. Something was wrong with the Arctic milk. The chemical concentrations were off the charts. The peaks overloaded the lab's equipment, running off the page.

Upon checking more breast milk, the scientists realized that the peaks were accurate: The Arctic mothers had seven times more PCBs in their milk than mothers in Canada's biggest cities.

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