A high level of contaminants detected in wild animals harvested around Fort Chipewyan is once again linking the upstream oilsands industry to potential health impacts if people in the community consume too much of certain wild meats.
Heightened levels of heavy metals like mercury and arsenic as well as cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) typically linked to industrial activity were detected again this year in both the muscle tissues and organs of various wild meats sampled through an ongoing community-based health and wild foods monitoring program, which looked at moose, duck, muskrat and beaver.
Those results were presented for the first time to the study’s participants and the community at large last week over a number of gatherings, which included a traditional feast of wild foods on Thursday evening.
Stephane McLachlan, a University of Manitoba researcher who is leading the study, said that while country foods are still by far the healthiest option when compared to processed, store-bought foods, it is important for people to be aware of the risks and consume limited amounts of certain meats, especially organs and waterfowl.
“Generally speaking, the results support what previous years had found. For the most part, the meats are okay to eat, but people have to be careful in terms of the organ meat – the kidneys, the livers – especially around arsenic and mercury levels,” McLachlan told The Journal.
With respect to mercury, limited consumption of duck muscle, liver and kidneys is advised for everyone regardless of age or sex. Moose kidneys are also flagged as being potentially harmful in large quantities for youth and very young children.
“It’s the waterfowl that tended to be the highest in terms of concentrations, as well as the organs. People need to recognize that they can’t eat those every day,” McLachlan said.
Cancer-causing PAH levels high compared to other countries
The same tissues were tested for PAHs, looking specifically at a carcinogenic subset that is of greater concern for human health and also tends to be associated with industry. Those findings were compared to similar studies done internationally around industrialized centres in places like Spain and China.
“Typically what people do is look at the whole diet and then get concentrations of PAHs in the grains, the fruits, the meat, and then they come up with the cumulative exposure to PAHs. So even though we were just working with country food, we did something similar; we looked at the total number of PAHs, the levels of carcinogenic PAHs, and what we found was that they were very high compared to the other studies – sometimes ranking in the top – even though a lot of people say that grains tend to accumulate PAHs more than meat,” McLachlan said.
Wild meat consumption on the decline
Part of the health study involved doing questionnaires last summer to get an estimate of how much wild meat people were eating as compared to store-bought on a weekly basis and over a two-month period, recognizing that wild food consumption can be episodic or seasonal.
What they found was that people are eating less country food than initially estimated.
“Even though, in some cases, the concentration levels of PAHs and heavy metals are high, because people are eating lots of foods that don’t involve country foods – and some people don’t eat much country food at all – the exposure rate is actually not as problematic as the concentration levels would in and of themselves lead you to believe,” McLachlan said.
“So yes, industry is having an impact, there’s no doubt; but because of all these other factors, people aren’t as high at risk as they might have been if their whole diet was based on country food.”
Though less troubling in terms of health concerns, McLachlan said the results do back up an unfortunate trend that is seeing people eating less wild foods both because of fear of contaminants and changing culture, which carries its own health concerns.
“People are eating a lot of healthy foods – vegetables, fruit and dairy products – but it’s pretty clear that their kids and grandkids are for sure less likely to eat country foods and more likely to eat the processed, nutritionally deficient foods,” he said.
Still, McLachlan said it’s important for people to have the full picture of what risks exist in order to make their own personal decisions about consumption.
“People individually are deciding what their risk tolerance levels are, but it’s one of those balancing games because you want people to be informed,” he said. “There is that danger that this just becomes another reason not to eat those foods, despite those caveats that the country foods, especially the meats, are the healthiest foods available to the community, culturally appropriate, and relatively affordable and accessible.”
This is the first health related study to be done in the community of Fort Chipewyan following concerns raised in 2003 by local doctor John O’Connor about high rates of rare cancers in the community.
Another study being done by the University of Calgary, funded in part by the provincial and federal governments, was announced in February 2013, although the Mikisew Cree First Nation has said it will be conducting its own study rather than take part.