The people of the Arctic face an impossible choice: abandon their traditional foods, or ingest high levels of poison from the rest of the world with every bite.
On a sheet of ice where the Arctic Ocean meets the North Atlantic in the territorial waters of Greenland, Mamarut Kristiansen kneels beside the carcass of a narwhal, the elusive animal sometimes known as “the unicorn of the sea” for its spiraled ivory tusk. He slices off a piece of mattak, the whale’s raw pink blubber and mottled gray skin, and bites into it. “Peqqinnartoq,” he says in Greenlandic. Healthy food. Nearby, Mamarut’s wife, Tukummeq Peary, a descendant of North Pole explorer Robert Peary, is boiling the main entrée on a camp stove. She, Mamarut, and his brother Gedion dip their hunting knives into the kettle and pull out steaming ribs of ringed seal.
From their home in Qaanaaq, a village in Greenland’s Thule region, the Kristiansens have traveled here, to the edge of the world, by dog sledge. It took six hours to journey 30 miles across a rugged glacier to this sapphire-hued fjord, where every summer they camp on the precarious ice awaiting their prey. The family lives much as their ancestors did thousands of years ago, relying on the bounty of the sea and skills honed by generations. Their lifestyle isn’t quaint; it is a necessity in this hostile and isolated expanse. Survival here, in the northernmost civilization on earth, means living the way marine mammals live, hunting as they do, wearing their skins. No factory-engineered fleece compares to the warmth of a sealskin parka. No motorboat can sneak up on a whale like a handmade kayak lashed together with strips of hide. And no imported food nourishes the people’s bodies and warms their spirits like the meat they slice from the flanks of a whale or seal.
Traditionally, this diet has made the Inuit people of the Arctic Circle among the world’s healthiest. Beluga whale, for example, 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 indigenous people from heart disease. A 70-year-old Inuit in Greenland has coronary arteries as elastic as those of a 20-year-old in Denmark eating Western foods, says Dr. Gert Mulvad of the Primary Health Care Clinic in Nuuk (Godthab), Greenland’s capital. Some Arctic clinics do not even keep common heart medications like nitroglycerin in stock. Although heart disease has appeared with the introduction of Western foods, it remains “more or less unknown,” Mulvad says.
Yet the ocean diet that gives these people life and defines their culture also threatens them. Despite living amid pristine ice, people like Mamarut, Tukummeq, and Gedion are more vulnerable to pollution than anyone else on earth. Mercury concentrations in Qaanaaq mothers are the highest ever recorded, 12 times greater than the level that poses neurological risks to fetuses, according to U.S. government standards. A separate study has linked PCBs with slight effects on the intelligence of children in Qaanaaq. Although most of the village’s people never leave their hunting grounds, the world travels to them, riding upon wintry winds.
The Arctic has been transformed into the planet’s chemical trash can, the final destination for toxic waste that originates thousands of miles away. Atmospheric and oceanic currents conspire to send industrial chemicals, pesticides, and power-plant emissions on a journey to the Far North. Many airborne chemicals tend to migrate to, and then precipitate in, cold climates, where they endure for decades, perhaps centuries, slow to break down in the frigid temperatures and low sunlight. The Arctic Ocean is a deep-freeze archive, holding the memories of the world’s past and present mistakes. Its wildlife, too, are archives, as poisonous chemicals accumulate in the fat Arctic animals need to survive. Polar bears living near the North Pole in Norway and Russia carry some of the highest levels of toxic compounds ever found in living animals.
Perched at the top of the Arctic food chain, eating a diet similar to a polar bear’s, the Inuit also play unwilling host to some 200 toxic pesticides and industrial compounds. These include all of the “Dirty Dozen”—the 12 pollutants capable of inflicting the most damage—including PCBs and chlorinated pesticides such as chlordane, toxaphene, and DDT, long banned in most of North America and Europe. Other compounds still in use today—flame retardants in furniture and computers, insecticides, and the chemicals used to make Teflon—are found in growing concentration as well.
The first evidence of alarming levels of toxic substances in the bodies of Arctic peoples came from the Canadian Inuit. In 1987, Dr. Eric Dewailly, an epidemiologist at Laval University in Quebec, was surveying contaminants in the breast milk of mothers near the industrialized, heavily polluted Gulf of St. Lawrence, when he met a midwife from Nunavik, the Inuit area of Arctic Quebec. (Across the Hudson Bay, the Inuit also have their own self-governing territory, Nunavut, or “our land.”) She asked whether he wanted milk samples from Nunavik women. Dewailly reluctantly agreed, thinking they might be useful as “blanks,” samples with nondetectable pollution levels.
A few months later, glass vials holding half a cup of milk from each of 24 Nunavik women arrived. Dewailly soon got a phone call from his 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 testing more breast milk, however, the scientists realized that the readings were accurate: Arctic mothers had seven times more PCBs in their milk than mothers in Canada’s biggest cities. Informed of the results, an expert in chemical safety at the World Health Organization told Dewailly that the PCB levels were the highest he had ever seen. Those women, he said, should stop breastfeeding their babies.
Dewailly hung up the phone. “Breast milk is supposed to be a gift,” he says. “It isn’t supposed to be a poison.” And in a place as remote as Nunavik, he knew that mothers often had nothing else to feed their infants. Nearly 18 years have passed since Dewailly tested those first vials of breast milk; subsequent data has emerged to show that people, especially babies, are exposed to dangerous concentrations of contaminants all across the Arctic. The average levels of PCBs and mercury in newborn babies’ cord blood and women’s breast milk are a staggering 20 to 50 times higher in Greenland than in urban areas of the United States and Europe, according to a 2002 report from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), a project created by eight governments including the United States. Ninety-five percent of women tested in eastern Greenland, nearly 75 percent of women in Arctic Canada’s Baffin Island, and nearly 60 percent in Nunavik exceed Canada’s “level of concern” for PCBs. Fewer measurements have been taken in Siberia, but the AMAP says contamination levels are high there as well.
In addition to their potential to cause cancer, many of the compounds found in Arctic inhabitants are capable of altering sex hormones and reproductive systems, suppressing immune systems, and obstructing brain development. Infants are the most vulnerable—subject to exposure both in utero and through breast milk, because contaminants such as PCB and DDT accumulate in the fatty nourishment—and are harmed in subtle but profound ways. Arctic babies with high PCB and DDT exposure suffer greater rates of infectious diseases. A study of such infants in Nunavik found that they have more ear and respiratory infections, a quarter of them severe enough to cause hearing loss. “Nunavik has a cluster of sick babies,” says Dewailly. “They fill the waiting rooms of the clinics.”
A 2003 study found that, compared to infants in lower Quebec, Nunavik infants had much higher exposure to PCBs, mercury, and lead, which resulted in lower birth weight, impaired memory skills, and difficulty in processing new information.
Excessive levels of contamination are not limited to the Arctic. People throughout the world, especially those in seafood-eating cultures, are at similar risk. In the United States, one of every six babies—about 698,000 a year—is born to a mother carrying more mercury in her body than is considered safe under federal guidelines.
The difference is that Americans and Europeans can make choices in their diets to limit their exposure, avoiding fish such as swordfish that are high on the food chain or from highly contaminated waters. For the 650,000 native people of the polar North—the Inuit of Greenland and Canada, the Aleuts, Yup’ik, and Inupiat of Alaska, the Chukchi and other tribes of Siberia, the Saami of Scandinavia and western Russia—there is no real choice. Spread over three continents and speaking dozens of languages, almost all of them face the same dilemma: whether to eat traditional food and face the health risk—or abandon their food, and with it their culture.
“Our foods do more than nourish our bodies,” Inuit rights activist Ingmar Egede said. “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.”
Excerpted with permission from Mother Jones (Jan. 2005). Marla Cone is an environmental reporter with the Los Angeles Times and the author of Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic (Grove Press, 2005).