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Southern toxins in northern species

Subtle changes are occurring in the health of arctic species, according to a project conducted by WWF-Canada, with researchers from Trent University. The Nunavut Wildlife Health Assessment Project (NWHP) investigated the health of arctic wildlife and employed a variety of assessment techniques.
These included contaminant analysis, a histological survey (the microscopic structure of animal tissues) and the documentation of observations by Inuit hunters, called Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ).

Elders and hunters living in three eastern arctic communities participated in the NWHP because they are concerned about the increased rate of physical changes they are seeing in species they rely on to maintain their way of life.

Dr Gordon Balch, research associate at Trent University, said: “Greater attention needs to be directed towards wildlife health issues to determine the magnitude and significance of these changes to the long-term sustainability of arctic wildlife.”

Dr Susan Sang, a senior manager with WWF-Canada who headed up the study, said: “This is particularly important in the context of climate change, which has a strong potential to influence the toxicological effects of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).”

Mercury, a potent toxic metal that targets the nervous system and brain development, was detected in various tissues and organs of arctic char, ringed seals and beluga whales. Mercury levels in the kidney and the liver of ringed seals, as well as muscle, kidney and liver in beluga are much higher than 0.5 ppm level recommended by Health Canada for human consumption.

The NWHP results also showed that new contaminants such as polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) known as fire retardants, and the organochlorine insecticide endosulfan,were detected in species submitted for chemical analysis (e.g. arctic char, ringed seal, beluga whale).

The environmental levels of these emerging contaminants are generally one to two orders of magnitude below the levels associated with the more notable legacy POPs. However, these compounds possess many of the same toxicological qualities of legacy contaminants and based on other studies, these levels are rapidly increasing in arctic wildlife tissues. The biological impacts at these concentrations are largely unknown at this point.

These results are of concern given the reliance of Inuit communities on ‘country food’ – food obtained through hunting and fishing from the sea, land, lakes and river by Inuit hunters.

Moe Keenainiak, acting executive director of Qikiqtaaluk Wildlife Board, said: “I believe that more research needs to be done on animals’ (health) to keep track of how things are going because country food is what we depend on to live.”

Inuit hunters and elders believe that pollutants from afar, as well as those used locally like oil and gas spills from boats and land vehicles, are contaminating the arctic environment and wildlife. Sixty per cent of those interviewed for the IQ Survey believe that any pollutants in arctic environments would have a negative impact on the health of wildlife.

Thomas Ublureak, president of Hunters’ and Trappers’ Organisation in Arviat, said: “Country foods are a main source of the Inuit diet. There is great concern about the impact of contaminants on the health of wildlife.”

William Nakoolak, president of Hunters’ and Trappers’ Organisation in Coral Harbour, said: “Continuation of sampling (wildlife) is the only way we are going to know about disease in these animals.”

The contamination of arctic wildlife with chemicals, including some no longer used in most industrialised countries and many still used in industrial and consumer applications, demonstrates the ineffectiveness of health and environmental protection laws in Canada and elsewhere.

European countries have taken a first step towards pollution prevention by requiring scientific data as a precondition for producing and marketing chemicals or products containing chemicals.

The proposed Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) system in Europe should lead to the identification and phasing out of the most harmful chemicals. WWF-Canada has urged the Canadian government, in the context of the current review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), to pursue a similar approach to protect the environment, wildlife and humans from toxic chemicals.The Nunavut Wildlife Health Assesment executive summary and IQ report are available on WWF-Canada’s website at and final results report will be available shortly.

Wendy Douglas
Cover: Nunavut Wildlife Health Assessment Project final report: Contaminants in Arctic Wildlife in ... 
© WWF-Canada
Download the report: Nunavut Wildlife Health Assessment Project final report: Contaminants in Arctic Wildlife in Nunavut, Canada.
© WWF-Canada

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