Scientist cite contaminant risk in Arctic subsistence

Posted: Friday, April 28, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Alaskans living a subsistence life in the Arctic may face a risk of serious illness due to environmental contamination by pesticides and other chemicals from Europe, a panel of experts agreed Wednesday.

The panel of five scientists from the Arctic Council noted that chemicals carried from Europe by air and water currents have entered the wilderness food chain -- with a short link to people who eat wild foods. The forum was moderated by Alaska Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer.

Arctic contaminants include agricultural pesticides from Europe as well as the heavy metals mercury and lead, said Dr. James Berner, director of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

''We in nature are exposed to a mixture of contaminants from the arctic,'' Berner said. ''People with a subsistence lifestyle may be more at risk.''

The problem, said panelist and UAF chemistry professor Larry Duffy, is that the contaminants are ingested by fish and the fish are eaten by seals, which are then used for subsistence.

''We have a very short food chain in the arctic,'' Duffy said. ''The organism to the fish to the marine mammal.''

One of the tasks of the Arctic Council is to determine if there is a higher rate of cancer among people in Native communities, he said. ''We're trying to provide them with answers, but we need them to help us monitor the situation.''

Another panelist, Patricia Cochran, Executive Director of the Alaska Native Science Commission, concurred.

''The people need to look at one another and see who's getting sick and why and bring that data to our discussions,'' she said. ''It's the only way for the Native people to gain knowledge.''

While subsistence foods hold some risk, Berner said the nutritional value of traditional Native foods outweighs that danger.

The same can be said for Native women that breast feed their babies, Berner said.

''Alaska Native babies are worse off when they are not breast fed,'' Berner said. ''Breast feeding helps prevent respiratory and lung infections. If they are getting any contaminants from the milk, they are far outweighed by the nutritional values.''

The 150-member Arctic Council meets every two years in one of the participating countries of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden or the U.S.

Working groups are set up to coordinate ongoing scientific research. The groups focus on five areas: health and ecological risk assessment, wildlife and habitat protection, environmental emergency preparedness, marine pollution, and sustainable economic development.

The council is meeting through Friday in Fairbanks.

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