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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 1 April, 2003, 14:22 GMT 15:22 UK
Toxin threat to Inuit food
By Lars Bevanger
BBC News Online, Oslo

Researchers have for the first time documented "unacceptable levels" of man-made environmental toxins in the Inuit population of Greenland.

Polar bear
Traditional food sources like polar bears are affected
There is little doubt the toxins originate from the traditional local diet of polar bears, seals and whales, a diet which so far has been considered one of the healthiest on the planet.

The report from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (Amap) concludes Greenlanders should consider changing their eating habits, to avoid possible health effects like reduced fertility, genetic damage and deformities in children.

One of the experts behind the report told BBC News Online he considered the findings extremely worrying.

"In certain areas of East Greenland, 100% of the population were found to have levels of contamination higher than what we call a level of concern," said Dr Henning Sloth Pedersen, chief medical officer at the Queen Ingrid's Hospital in Greenland's capital, Nuuk.

"Thirty per cent were over the level of action, which means we will encourage people to take action to decrease their intake of the most possible source of these contaminants, which is traditional foods."

Greenland is the only place in the world where people have been found to be above the level of action when it comes to environmental toxins found in the human body.

Man-made persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like PCBs have been linked to serious health damage in animals and humans.

Together with other pollutants like mercury, lead and cadmium, they are carried north by sea currents and weather patterns.

Diabetes increases

The toxins accumulate in animals high up in the food chain, and especially in marine mammals, an integral part of the traditional diet in Greenland.

But it is also this diet that has kept Greenland's population protected from ailments typically associated with industrialised societies, like heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

To discover that the food which for generations has nourished them and kept them whole physically and spiritually is now poisoning them is profoundly disturbing
Arctic Indigenous Peoples' Organisations
Dr Jens C Hansen, from the Centre for Arctic Environmental Medicine at Aarhus University, Denmark, called this "the Arctic dilemma".

"While we need to give dietary advice to avoid the over-consumption of environmental toxins, we must also avoid people abandoning their traditional diet for a Western one," he told BBC News Online.

"This creates other and equally serious problems, like heart and coronary disease. These ailments are already fast taking hold in Arctic areas."

Twenty-five years ago diabetes was almost non-existent in Greenland. Today, the number of diabetics there is three times the level in Denmark.

The Amap report asks Greenland's health authorities to develop carefully considered and balanced dietary advice in light of the new findings.

Cultural survival

Greenland generates no notable pollution itself, and the Inuit population are in effect suffering from toxins produced elsewhere, by the world's most industrialised nations.

In a statement attached to the Amap report, the Arctic Indigenous Peoples' Organisations called on such nations to increase efforts to reduce emissions of environmental pollutants, so as not to disrupt indigenous peoples' traditional way of life.

Jens C Hansen
While we need to give dietary advice to avoid the over-consumption of environmental toxins, we must also avoid people abandoning their traditional diet for a western one
Jens C Hansen, Centre for Arctic Environmental Medicine
"To discover that the food which for generations has nourished them and kept them whole physically and spiritually is now poisoning them is profoundly disturbing and threatens Indigenous Peoples' cultural survival," the statement says.

Stephanie Meakin, of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an organisation representing approximately 150,000 Inuit living in the Arctic regions, told BBC News Online all this was threatening the very cultural survival of Inuit people.

"Traditional food is what binds the Inuit culture together. The hunt and the sharing of the food is very important," she said.

"When this is compromised, not only do they lose confidence in their food - they lose part of their culture and in fact spirituality."




SEE ALSO:
Inuit demand whale catch
13 Oct 02  |  Sci/Tech
The West's most isolated community
09 Nov 01  |  From Our Own Correspondent
Timeline: Greenland
04 Mar 03  |  Country profiles
Profile: Greenland
04 Mar 03  |  Country profiles


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