Natives concerned about contamination in traditional food sources

Posted: Tuesday, May 02, 2000

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Delegates here at an international conference on Arctic pollution say Alaska Natives are beginning to avoid traditional foods out of concerns they're contaminated with pesticides, heavy metals and other toxins.

Mike Zacharof, president of the Aleut International Association, said many of his fellow Natives on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs are afraid seal livers may contain mercury.

''I have a son who has quit eating seal meat altogether,'' Zacharof said Monday.

Patricia Cochran, director of the Alaska Native Science Commission, said people around Prince William Sound no longer eat traditional foods because they fear consequences from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

''This impacts not only our physical well-being but our emotional and spiritual lives as well,'' Cochran said.

The Alaska Native Science Commission is funded by the National Science Foundation to help incorporate traditional knowledge into scientific research and to encourage Natives to enter work in the sciences.

Natives from around Alaska have been seeing more tumors, lesions, spots and sores appearing on land and sea animals, she said.

Their concerns are being documented in a report by the Alaska Native Science Commission. The report is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Scientific studies and local experience point to growing evidence of pollutants accumulating in the Arctic food chain.

Research by the multinational Circumpolar Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program has revealed high levels of the pesticide DDT in the breast milk of Russian mothers in Arctic regions.

Another study, by the University of Alaska Anchorage, indicates that pregnant Alaska Native women who eat subsistence foods may be exposing their fetuses to potentially dangerous pollutants.

''There's no question that people are concerned not only about what it's going to do to them but to their unborn children,'' Cochran said.

Other research has turned up elevated levels of pollutants in marine mammals, including polar bears, seals, and beluga and bowhead whales.

The Tanana Chiefs Conference, a tribal social services agency for the Alaska Interior based in Fairbanks, has detected high levels of DDT in salmon.

Scientists believe many of the pollutants originate in places far from the Arctic but make their way northward by way of ocean movements, river currents and wind patterns.

The cold climate makes it difficult for those substances to break down. As a result, scientists increasingly are referring to the Arctic as a ''sink'' for much of the world's poisons.

Alaska has the added burden of being home to a number of Cold War-era military sites contaminated with such hazardous substances as PCBs and dioxins. Some of the bases are in rich fishing areas like Adak in the Aleutians and St. Lawrence Island.

A recent study by a State University of New York scientist determined that the sites probably will continue to be sources of environmental pollution for decades.

While contamination has turned up in the kidneys of bowhead whales, Natives continue to eat them because the kidney is one of the choice parts of the whale, said Michael Pederson, an Alaska member of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference -- an international group representing Eskimo people around the Arctic.

But they do that with some trepidation, he said.

Natives need to know how much contamination is too much, Pederson said.

The International Conference on Arctic Development, Pollution and Biomarkers in Human Health continues through Wednesday.

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