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Sci Total Environ. 1999 Jun 1;230(1-3):1-82.

Human health implications of environmental contaminants in Arctic Canada: a review.

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Health Canada, Bureau of Chemical Hazards, Ottawa, ON, Canada.


This paper assesses the impact on human health of exposure to current levels of environmental contaminants in the Canadian Arctic, and identifies the data gaps that need to be filled by future human health research and monitoring. The concept of health in indigenous groups of the Arctic includes social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions. The harvesting, sharing and consumption of traditional foods are an integral component to good health among Aboriginal people influencing both physical health and social well-being. Traditional foods are also an economic necessity in many communities. Consequently, the contamination of country food raises problems which go far beyond the usual confines of public health and cannot be resolved by health advisories or food substitutions alone. The primary exposure pathway for the contaminants considered in this paper is through the traditional northern diet. For the Inuit, the OCs of primary concern at this time from the point of view of exposure are chlordane, toxaphene, and PCBs. Exposures are higher in the eastern than in the western region of the North. For Dene/Metis, exposure to OCs is in general below a level of concern. However, estimated intake of chlordane and toxaphene has been found to be elevated for certain groups and is a cause for concern if exposures are elevated on a regular basis. The developing foetus and breast-fed infant are likely to be more sensitive to the effects of OCs and metals than individual adults and are the age groups at greatest risk in the Arctic. Extensive sampling of human tissues in the Canadian north indicate that a significant proportion of Dene, Cree and Inuit had mean maternal hair mercury levels within the 5% risk-range proposed by the WHO for neonatal neurological damage. Based on current levels, lead does not appear to pose a health threat while cadmium is likely only a major risk factor for heavy smokers or consumers of large amounts of organ meats. Consumers of traditional foods are exposed to an approximately seven-fold higher radiation dose than non-consumers of traditional foods due predominantly to the bioaccumulation of natural radionuclides in the food chain. Risk determination for contaminants in country food involves a consideration of the type and amounts of food consumed and the sociocultural, nutritional, economic, and spiritual benefits associated with country foods. Risk management options that minimize the extent to which nutritional and sociocultural aspects of Aboriginal societies are compromised must always be considered.

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