What is food pollution?

Updated: 10/26/2022
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The ancestral Inuit diet is based on fish, sea mammals and game, all of which are high up the food chain. But air- and sea-borne pollutants are lodging in the Arctic and infiltrating these traditional foods.

"Certain pollutants, such as chlorinated pesticides and PCBs, find their way to the Arctic by air or by sea from as far away as India and Egypt," said Laurie Chan, a toxicologist with the Montreal-based Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment (CINE), which conducts research on northern nutrition and consumption.

Substances known as persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, are now banned in North America but still used in developing countries. Harmful agricultural pesticides evaporate from farmland and are carried across oceans and continents by wind to the frozen Arctic, which scientists believe acts as a sponge for a wide range of pollutants. Chemicals then make their way into the food chain and settle in animal fat, an Inuit staple.

"Native people consume much animal fat," said Chan, "especially in mammals who in turn eat a lot of fish." The contaminants accumulate and become more concentrated the higher they go up the food chain towards human consumption.

At the same time Inuit who had switched to processed foods -- perhaps spurred by television advertising -- are trying to return to the eating habits of their ancestors.

But a recent report by the Canadian Polar Commission, a government-funded watchdog that advises on northern issues, warns that contaminants in traditional foods could reach dangerous levels in the next few decades unless trends are reversed.

Medical statistics have already shown an increase in obesity and kidney disease among native people of the North, which some experts believe may be traced to the shift towards store-bought food.

Another report recently found that levels of contaminants in northerners who eat marine mammals could be harmful to the unborn. A six-year survey by the National Contaminants Program, which groups government ministries and native organizations, warns that memory and learning abilities could be affected in the womb because of chemicals which have accumulated in the mother's body.

In addition to pollutants carried by air and sea, traditional food in the North is being threatened by the remains of abandoned military bases that dot Canada's Arctic shores.

Crumbling buildings, rusting metal drums and twisted towers are the sorry reminders of radar sites which North America once considered vital to its defence strategy. The bases gradually became obsolete and were quietly closed down back when little was known about the carcinogenic nature of asbestos and PCBs. These substances are now filtering into the environment, adding to contamination from far-off sources. Radioactive wastes from the North Sea are also contributing to the pollution.

Whatever the health warnings, the Inuit have made it clear they won't stop eating the nutritional food that has sustained them for thousands of years.

"If you're told not to eat your food, or told not to consume parts of the animals, that does real damage to the intricate connections that we have to our foods and our animals," said Norma Kassi, environmental coordinator for the Council of Yukon First Nations.

"We consider them to be a part of us just as we are a part of them, so that breaks a tie, and will hurt a culture much more than anything else. You can't remove us from our food systems -- it just can't be done."

While there are isolated areas where contamination is already significant, Kassi says most of the food is still safe.

"Yes, there is contamination in our food, but relatively it is still very, very good," she said. "We want to encourage more use of it."

One thing all experts agree upon is the need for caution and for more research before raising the alarm or reaching a verdict on short-term food safety. But the long-term picture looks grim and scientists say danger could be just around the corner if the situation is allowed to deteriorate.

To mark its concern about transboundary pollutants, Canada is spearheading international efforts to ban the use of POPs. At risk are the food chain and the quality of life of some 125,000 circumpolar Inuit spread out across Canada, Russia, Alaska and Greenland.

Unlike many other environmental threats, specialists contend food contamination can be beaten if it is taken seriously enough, soon enough, by those who control the purse strings.

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