Toxic wildlife threatens health of Russian Inuit

"Children are affected in the most critical points of their development"

Jane George janeg@nunatsiaq.com

Dr. Larisa Abrutina is a Yupik physician who works with the Russian
Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

REYKJAVIK - If you eat seal or walrus, boil the meat and avoid eating
the liver or fat. Better yet, eat arctic char or caribou.

That's the advice from a new report on persistent organic pollutants,
toxic substances which are in the northern food chain and, at high
levels, can cause severe damage to human health.

The report tabled last week at the Arctic Council meeting in Iceland is called Persistent Toxic Substances, Food Security and Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North. It shows Russia's Arctic regions are heavily toxic and high levels of persistent organic pollutants or POPs threaten human health.

"Children are affected in the most critical points of their development - as a fetus and while breastfeeding," said Vitaly Kimstach, one of the authors of the report.

In many cases these dangerously high levels of POPs present in the blood of Inuit in Chukotka are the same as have been found in Inuit in Nunavik and other coastal regions of the Arctic, the report says.

The situation in coastal Chukotka is said several times to be "comparable" or "similar" to Nunavik, with many levels for POPs about the same.

The POPs examined in the report include polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, flame retardants, pesticides like DDT, combustion products and heavy metals. The POPs come from Europe, Russia, North America and South East Asia, carried by the wind, water or other forms of contact.

From the Kola Peninsula in western Siberia to Chukotka in the East, the report's results showed all Russian indigenous communities had moderate - or much higher - exposure to the major groups of global environmental pollutants.

The levels of POPs are so high in Chukotka that, even after factoring out smoking and alcohol, researchers found there was a relationship between high levels of POPs and a low birth weight, prematurity, miscarriages and chronic diseases in older women.

The levels of PCBs also affected the number of males or females born in Chukotka, with more female babies born to women with higher levels of PCBs. These female children are also subject to more negative health impacts.

Chukotka was by far the worst of four regions the report looked at. The region's death rate for indigenous peoples is more than twice the Russian average.

In Chukotka's capital city of Providenya, there is no treatment of sewage or waste water and industry spews out airborne pollutants.

Coastal residents of Chukotka are worse off than city dwellers because they consume a diet heavy in the fat and fermented meats of marine mammals. The fat of walrus and seal, as well as the organ meats, are loaded with contaminants.

To make matters worse, Yupik Inuit in Chukotka often use plastic pails that have stored pesticides to ferment meat or else they bury it outside in contaminated soil. The popular home-made alcoholic mash called "braga" is also a POP-laden soup.

The report looked at 1576 adults and 255 mother-child couples.

All of those with high levels of POPs in their blood were also found to live in houses full of PCB contamination, possibly from the tonnes of
PCBs Russia used to produce in the form of paints and varnishes that end up in the food and bodies of people who live there.

The surprise, said Kimstach, one of the reports authors, is that the levels of mercury were fairly low in Chukotka.

The good news is that pregnant women, who are often sent away from their communities to deliver, similar to expectant mothers in Nunavik, have lower levels of POPs because they eat less country foods when they're away from their home communities.

The report also found Chukotkans with higher incomes and more education have lower levels of POPs in their systems - possibly because they are able to afford store-bought food.

Dr. Larisa Abrutina is a Yupik physician who works with the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and also contributed to the report. Despite the report's findings, she said it's still important for Inuit to eat country foods because of their cultural and nutritional value.

Abrutina suggests boiling traditional foods instead of fermenting them and avoiding organ meats and fat to reduce the load of contaminants.

The problem of stopping the flow of POPs to the Arctic regions is complex, she admits, because pesticides like DDT are still used in Africa to prevent malaria and the death of millions of people.

At the same time, Russia has not ratified the Stockholm Convention to reduce the production of POPs globally.

Russia's ratification of this deal will be a priority for the Russian Chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

The report, a joint project of RAIPON, the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations Environment Program and the Arctic Council's Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program also received support from the Inuit Circumpolar Conference.

The entire report, which is well-written and illustrated, can be consulted at the AMAP site at

Informant: Teresa Binstock


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Dezember 2004

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