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Ancestral Diet Gone Toxic

Times Staff Writer

Pitching a makeshift tent on the sea ice, where the Arctic Ocean meets the North Atlantic, brothers Mamarut and Gedion Kristiansen are ready to savor their favorite meal.

Nearby lies the carcass of a narwhal, a reclusive beast with an ivory tusk like a unicorn’s. Mamarut slices off a piece of muktuk, the whale’s raw pink blubber and mottled gray skin, as a snack.

“Peqqinnartoq,” he says in Greenlandic. Healthy food.

Mamarut’s wife, Tukummeq Peary, a descendant of famed North Pole explorer Adm. Robert E. Peary, is boiling the main entree on a camp stove. The family dips hunting knives into the kettle, pulling out steaming ribs of freshly killed ringed seal and devouring the hearty meat with some hot black tea.

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Living closer to the North Pole than to any city, factory or farm, the Kristiansens appear unscathed by any industrial-age ills. They live much as their ancestors did, relying on foods harvested from the sea and skills honed by generations of Inuit.

But as northbound winds carry toxic remnants of faraway lands to their hunting grounds in extraordinary amounts, their close connection to the environment and their ancestral diet of marine mammals have left the Arctic’s indigenous people vulnerable to the pollutants of modern society. About 200 hazardous compounds, which migrate from industrialized regions and accumulate in ocean-dwelling animals, have been detected in the inhabitants of the far north.

The bodies of Arctic people, particularly Greenland’s Inuit, contain the highest human concentrations of industrial chemicals and pesticides found anywhere on Earth -- levels so extreme that the breast milk and tissues of some Greenlanders could be classified as hazardous waste.

Nearly all Inuit tested in Greenland and more than half in Canada have levels of PCBs and mercury exceeding international health guidelines.

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Perched atop a contaminated food chain, the inhabitants of the Arctic have become the industrialized world’s lab rats, the involuntary subjects of an accidental human experiment demonstrating what can happen when a heaping brew of chemicals builds up in human bodies.

Studies of infants in Greenland and Arctic Canada who have been exposed in the womb and through breast milk suggest that the chemicals are harming children. Babies suffer greater rates of infections because their immune systems seem to be impaired, and their brain development is altered, slightly reducing their intelligence and memory skills.

Scientists say the immune suppression could be responsible, at least in part, for the Arctic’s inordinate number of sick babies. They believe the neurological damage to newborns is similar in scope to the harm done if the mothers drank moderate amounts of alcohol while pregnant.

The tragedy for the Inuit is that they have few, if any, ways to protect themselves. Many Arctic natives say that abandoning their traditional foods would destroy a 4,000-year-old society rooted in hunting.

In this hostile and isolated expanse of glacier-carved bedrock and frozen sea, survival means that people live as marine mammals live, hunting like they do, wearing their skins. No factory-engineered fleece compares with the warmth of a sealskin parka, mittens and boots. No motorboat sneaks up on a whale like a handmade kayak latched together with rope. No snowmobile flexes with the ice like a dog-pulled sledge crafted of driftwood.

And no imported food nourishes their bodies, warms their spirit and strengthens their hearts like the flesh they slice from the flanks of a whale or seal.

“Our foods do more than nourish our bodies. They feed our souls,” said the late Ingmar Egede, a Greenlandic educator who promoted the rights of indigenous peoples. “When many things in our lives are changing, our foods remain the same. They make us feel the same as they have for generations.

“When I eat Inuit foods, I know who I am.”

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Unexpected Poisons

In 1987, Dr. Eric Dewailly, an epidemiologist at Laval University in Quebec, was surveying contaminants in breast milk of mothers near the industrialized, heavily polluted Gulf of St. Lawrence when he met a midwife from Nunavik, the Arctic portion of Quebec province. She asked whether he wanted to gather milk samples from women there. Dewailly reluctantly agreed, thinking it might be useful as “blanks,” samples with nondetectable pollution levels.

A few months later, the first batch of samples from Nunavik -- glass vials holding a half-cup of milk from each of 24 women -- arrived by air mail at the lab in Quebec.

Dewailly soon got a phone call from the lab director. Something was wrong with the Arctic milk. The chemical concentrations were off the charts. The peaks overloaded the lab’s equipment, running off the page. The technician thought the samples must have been tainted in transit.

Upon checking more breast milk, the scientists soon realized that the peaks were, in fact, accurate: The Arctic mothers had seven times more PCBs in their milk than mothers in Canada’s biggest cities.

Dewailly contacted the World Health Organization in Geneva, where an expert in chemical safety told him that the PCB levels were the highest he had ever seen. Those women, the expert said, should stop breast-feeding their babies.

Dewailly hung up the phone, his mind reeling. He knew that mother’s milk is the most nutritious food of all, and that Nunavik, located on Hudson Bay, is so remote that mothers had nothing else to feed their infants. As a doctor, he couldn’t in good conscience tell them to quit breast-feeding. But he knew he couldn’t hide the problem, either.

“Breast milk is supposed to be a gift,” said Dewailly, who today is among the world’s leading experts on the human health effects of contaminants. “It isn’t supposed to be a poison.”

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Nearly a generation has passed since those first vials of breast milk arrived in the Quebec laboratory. The babies Dewailly agonized over are now 16 years old, about to pass to their own children the chemical load amassing in their bodies.

Top of the World

From ice-clinging algae to polar bears, the Arctic has a long and intricate ladder of life. An estimated 650,000 indigenous people inhabit the top rung, and their population is steadily growing. About 90,000 are the Inuit of Eastern Canada and Greenland -- a territory of Denmark under its own home-rule government. Others, spread across eight nations and speaking dozens of languages, include the 350,000 Yakuts of Siberian Russia, Alaska’s Inupiat and Yup’ik, and Scandinavia’s Saami.

Environmental scientists suspect that industrial chemicals first hitched a ride to the Arctic in the 1940s.

The chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, originate in the cities of North America, Europe and Asia. They travel thousands of miles north via winds, ocean currents and rivers. In the Arctic, the sea is a deep-freeze archive, storing contaminants that are slow to break down in cold temperatures and low sunlight. Ingested first by zooplankton, the chemicals spread through the food web as one species consumes another.

Scientists say the Arctic’s water and air are much cleaner than they are in urban environments. PCBs and DDT in the fish and mammals of such areas as the Great Lakes, the Baltic and the North Sea are 10 to 100 times higher in concentration than in the Arctic Ocean.

But most urban dwellers consume food from a host of sources, eating comparatively limited amounts of seafood and no marine mammals or other top predators high on the food web. Instead, they consume mostly land-raised foods with low contaminant levels.

lnuit, by contrast, eat much like a polar bear does, consuming the blubber and meat of fish-eating whales, seals, walruses and seabirds four or five links up the marine food chain. Contaminants, which accumulate in animals’ fat, magnify in concentration with each step up, from plankton to people.

In newborns’ umbilical cord blood and mothers’ breast milk, average PCB and mercury levels are 20 to 50 times higher in remote villages of Greenland than in urban areas of the United States and Europe, according to a 2003 report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, or AMAP, a scientific consortium created by the eight Arctic nations, including the United States.

In far northern villages such as Qaanaaq, where the Kristiansens live, one of every six adults tested exceeds 200 parts per billion of mercury in the blood, a dose known to cause acute symptoms of mercury poisoning, according to a 2003 United Nations report.

“That’s a huge amount of mercury,” said John Risher, a mercury specialist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s toxic substances agency. “At that level, I would really expect to see effects, such as paresthesia, an abnormal sensation, tingling or numbness, especially in the hands.”

Few details are known about Russia’s Siberia, but AMAP scientists are expected to soon release data showing that residents of the region are more contaminated than Greenlanders. In contrast, Alaska’s Inupiat carry low concentrations because they eat bowhead whales that are low on the food web.

PCBs and DDT, the so-called legacy chemicals banned three decades ago in most developed nations, peaked in the Arctic in the 1990s and since then have declined, although they remain at substantially higher levels in people there than elsewhere.

Other compounds are increasing, including mercury and brominated flame retardants called PBDEs. Much of the mercury comes from coal-burning power plants, largely in Asia, while the United States is the major source of the flame retardants, used in plastics and polyurethane foam.

Evidence has emerged recently that the contaminants are threatening the health of Inuit infants and young children.

“Subtle health effects are occurring in certain areas of the Arctic due to exposure to contaminants in traditional food, particularly for mercury and PCBs,” according to a 2002 AMAP report.

Building up over a lifetime, chemicals stored in a mother’s body cross into the womb, contaminating a fetus before birth. Then the newborn gets an added dose from breast milk.

A study in Arctic Canada, soon to be published, has shown for the first time that the risks of traditional foods seem to outweigh their benefits, said Gina Muckle of Laval University’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine in Quebec, who directed the study.

In Muckle’s study, 11-month-old Nunavik babies were repeatedly shown a picture while researchers recorded how readily the children recognized images they already had seen. The infants with high amounts of PCBs in their bodies were 10% less likely to recognize the images than infants with low PCB levels.

A separate, smaller study also linked PCBs with slight neurological effects in older children in Qaanaaq. The studies confirm similar neurological effects detected in children elsewhere, including the Great Lakes region.

Also in Nunavik, infants exposed in the womb to high levels of DDT and PCBs suffered more ear and respiratory infections, particularly in the first six months of life, according to a study by Laval University’s Frederic Dallaire, also about to be published.

Dewailly said the increased infection rate is the most serious of the known threats because Arctic children suffer extremely elevated rates of ear infections, which often lead to hearing loss, and respiratory infections.

“Nunavik has a cluster of sick babies,” he said. “They fill the waiting rooms of the clinics.”

No Cows, Pigs, Chickens

A year-round icy shield -- thicker than a mile in some places -- covers 85% of Greenland. The island has no trees, no grass, no fertile soil, which means no cows, no pigs, no chickens, no grains, no vegetables, no fruit orchards.

Instead, the ocean is Greenland’s food basket.

Sandwiched between Canada and Scandinavia, Greenland gets the brunt of the world’s contaminants because it is in the path of winds from both European and North American cities.

In the remote parts of Greenland, such as the Kristiansens’ village of Qaanaaq, people eat marine mammals and seabirds 36 times a month on average, consuming about a pound of seal and whale each week. About one-third of their calories come from traditional foods.

“We eat seal meat as you eat cow in your country,” said Jonathan Motzfeldt, who was Greenland’s premier for almost 30 years and is now its finance minister. “It’s important for Greenlanders to have meat on the table.”

The Inuit say their native food strengthens their bodies, warming them from within like a fire glowing inside a lantern. When they eat anything else, instead of fire inside, they feel ice.

“We are living in a place that is very cold, and it’s not by accident we eat what we do. We are not able to survive on other food,” Lars Rasmussen, a 52-year-old hunter from Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, said through a translator. “Hunting is so important to us, so fundamental, that we will not be able to survive without it.”

Everything else, from tea to bread, must be imported. In remote villages, stores stock processed and canned food that is expensive, frequently stale and not very tasty or nutritious. In Nunavut, across Baffin Bay from Greenland, store-bought food for a family of four would cost $240 per week, more than one-third of the average family income there, according to a report by Canada’s Northern Contaminants Program.

Jose Kusugak, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the organization representing Canadian Inuit, said he can buy “lame lettuce” and “really old oranges” and “dried up apples” in Nunavut, or he can eat fresh and nutritious beluga, walrus, fish and caribou. “There is really no alternative,” he said.

In some respects, the marine diet has made the Inuit among the world’s healthiest people. Beluga whale meat has 10 times the iron of beef, twice the protein and five times the Vitamin A.

Omega 3 fatty acids in the seafood protect the Inuit from heart disease and diabetes. Seventy-year-old Inuit men have coronary arteries as elastic as those of 20-year-old Danes, said Dr. Gert Mulvad of the Primary Health Care Clinic in Nuuk.

Although heart disease has increased with the introduction of processed foods, especially among Greenlandic young people, it remains “more or less unknown,” Mulvad said.

Public health officials are torn over whether to encourage the Inuit to continue eating their traditional diet or reduce their consumption.

“The first goal of medicine is to do no harm, so I’m not absolutely convinced we should restrict beluga fat. It has a huge, huge beneficial effect on cardiovascular disease,” said Dewailly, who heads public health research at Laval University Medical Research Center.

Government officials and doctors fear that Inuit will switch to imported processed foods loaded with carbohydrates and sugar, risking malnourishment, vitamin deficiencies, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

“The level of contamination is very high in Greenland, but there’s a lot of Western food that is worse than the poisons,” Mulvad said.

Greenland’s home-rule government and doctors have issued no advisories. Many Greenlanders are aware of the contamination, although they know few details. In Canada, however, there has been extensive outreach to indigenous people, including trips by Dewailly and other scientists to explain their findings in detail. But public health officials there still struggle, after 16 years, with what dietary advice to give.

Last year, Nunavik leaders initiated an experiment in three communities that gives women free Arctic char, a fish high in fatty acids but low in PCBs, to encourage them to eat less beluga blubber, the main source of contaminants there.

Most Inuit have not altered their diet in response to the contamination, according to dietary surveys in Canada. In Arctic cultures, people rely on the traditional knowledge of hunters and elders, and with no visible signs of pollution or people dying, many are skeptical that the chemicals exist. Some even suspect talk about chemicals is a ploy to strip them of their traditions.

Moreover, health officials point out that the risks of contaminants are greatly outweighed by other societal problems, including smoking, suicide, domestic violence and binge drinking, which have a severe and immediate impact on life and death in the Arctic. For example, more than half of pregnant women in Greenland smoke cigarettes.

Those who are aware of the dangers of the toxic chemicals say their meats are too nutritious and important to give up.

“People say whale and seal are polluted, but they are still healthy foods to us,” said Ujuunnguaq Heinrich, a minke whale and seal hunter in Nuuk.

Anthropologists warn that efforts to alter Inuit diets can unwittingly cause irreversible cultural changes. If hunting is discouraged, people quickly would lose their traditional knowledge about the environment and their hunting skills, as well as material items such as tools and clothing, said Robert Wheelersburg, an anthropologist at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania who specializes in Arctic cultures.

Their art, their spirituality, their celebrations, their storytelling, even their language would suffer. Inuit dialects are steeped in the nuances of nature that their national languages -- English, Danish and French -- ignore.

Wheelersburg said the most important damage would be to Inuit “values and attitudes.” In the Arctic’s subsistence economy, people share prey among neighbors and relatives, even strangers. The best hunters are leaders in the village, and they are generous with their wealth. If the Inuit switch to a cash society, that communal generosity would disappear, Wheelersburg said.

“It’s more than the food you are changing,” Wheelersburg said. “It’s the actual catching and hunting of it that really generates the cultural characteristics.” Even skipping one generation would impair hunting skills, he said, and “once they are lost, I don’t see how you can regenerate them.”

Survival of the Fittest

Like everyone else in Qaanaaq, the Kristiansens remain mostly oblivious to the scientists and political leaders fretting about how many parts per billion of toxic chemicals are in their bodies.

They simply don’t have the luxury to worry about dangers so imperceptible, so intangible. Instead, hunters worry about things they can hear and see: thinning ice conditions, the whereabouts of whales, where their next meat will come from. Anxiety about chemicals is left to those who live in distant lands, those who generated the compounds, those whose bodies contain far less.

About 850 miles from the North Pole, Qaanaaq, an isolated village of about 600, is the closest on Earth to the archetype of traditional polar life. Inuit there hunt seal, beluga, walrus and narwhal in the icy waters of a fjord.

Every spring, when the midnight sun returns, the Arctic’s treasures, long locked in the ice, are within reach again. On a freezing-cold June afternoon, narwhal season has begun. Gedion and Mamarut head out on their sledges, their dogs racing 35 miles across the glacier, toward the Kristiansens’ ancestral hunting grounds, a narrow strip of sapphire blue in the distance.

The Kristiansen brothers learned to hunt narwhal from their father, who, in turn, learned from his own relatives. It won’t be long before Gedion’s son, Rasmus, now 6, will be paddling a kayak beside his father.

Gedion jokes that he lassos narwhals from his kayak like the American cowboys he has seen on television. A little over a century ago, the people of Qaanaaq had little contact with the Western world. Today, they can buy salami and dental floss and Danish porn magazines in their small local market, and watch “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in their living rooms on the one TV station that beams into Qaanaaq.

The Kristiansens also know that other elements travel to their homeland, riding upon winter winds.

They learned a little about the contaminants -- the akuutissat minguttitsisut -- from listening to the radio. But they have not changed their diet, and no one has advised them to. Virtually every day, they eat seal meat and muktuk. With every bite, traces of mercury, PCBs and other chemicals amass in their bodies, to be passed on to their children.

“We can’t avoid them,” Gedion said in Greenlandic. “It’s our food.”

Since 2000 BC, the Inuit legacy has been passed on to generations of boys by generations of men. Their ancestors’ memories, as vivid as a dream, mingle with their own, inseparable.

“Qaatuppunga piniartarlunga,” Mamarut said.

As far back as I can remember, I hunted.


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