By Marla Cone
QAANAAQ, Greenland - Pitching a makeshift tent on the sea ice,
The Arctic Ocean meets the North Atlantic, brothers Mamarut and
Kristiansen are ready to savor their favorite meal.
Nearby lies the carcass of a narwhal, a reclusive beast with
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
stove. The family dips hunting knives into the kettle, pulling
steaming ribs of freshly killed ringed seal and devouring the
meat with some hot black tea.
Living closer to the North Pole than to any city, factory or
Kristiansens appear unscathed by any industrial-age ills. They
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
hunting grounds in extraordinary amounts, their close connection
environment and their ancestral diet of marine mammals have left
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,
the highest human concentrations of industrial chemicals and pesticides
found anywhere on Earth - levels so extreme that the breast milk
tissues of some Greenlanders could be classified as hazardous
Nearly all Inuit tested in Greenland and more than half in Canada
levels of PCBs and mercury exceeding international health guidelines.
Perched atop a contaminated food chain, the inhabitants of the
have become the industrialized world's lab rats, the involuntary
subjects of an accidental human experiment demonstrating what
happen when a heaping brew of chemicals builds up in human bodies.
Studies of infants in Greenland and Arctic Canada who have been
in the womb and through breast milk suggest that the chemicals
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
part, for the Arctic's inordinate number of sick babies. They
the neurological damage to newborns is similar in scope to the
done if the mothers drank moderate amounts of alcohol while pregnant.
The tragedy for the Inuit is that they have few, if any, ways
Protect themselves. Many Arctic natives say that abandoning their
traditional foods would destroy a 4,000-year-old society rooted
In this hostile and isolated expanse of glacier-carved bedrock
frozen sea, survival means that people live as marine mammals
hunting like they do, wearing their skins. No factory-engineered
compares with the warmth of a sealskin parka, mittens and boots.
motorboat sneaks up on a whale like a handmade kayak latched together
with rope. No snowmobile flexes with the ice like a dog-pulled
crafted of driftwood.
And no imported food nourishes their bodies, warms their spirit
strengthens their hearts like the flesh they slice from the flanks
whale or seal.
"Our foods do more than nourish our bodies. They feed our
the late Ingmar Egede, a Greenlandic educator who promoted the
of indigenous peoples. "When many things in our lives are
foods remain the same. They make us feel the same as they have
"When I eat Inuit foods, I know who I am."
In 1987, Dr. Eric Dewailly, an epidemiologist at Laval University
Quebec, was surveying contaminants in breast milk of mothers near
industrialized, heavily polluted Gulf of St. Lawrence when he
midwife from Nunavik, the Arctic portion of Quebec province. She
whether he wanted to gather milk samples from women there. Dewailly
reluctantly agreed, thinking it might be useful as "blanks,"
with nondetectable pollution levels.
A few months later, the first batch of samples from Nunavik -
vials holding a half-cup of milk from each of 24 women - arrived
mail at the lab in Quebec.
Dewailly soon got a phone call from the lab director. Something
wrong with the Arctic milk. The chemical concentrations were off
charts. The peaks overloaded the lab's equipment, running off
The technician thought the samples must have been tainted in transit.
Upon checking more breast milk, the scientists soon realized
peaks were, in fact, accurate: The Arctic mothers had seven times
PCBs in their milk than mothers in Canada's biggest cities.
Dewailly contacted the World Health Organization in Geneva, where
expert in chemical safety told him that the PCB levels were the
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
contaminants. "It isn't supposed to be a poison."
Nearly a generation has passed since those first vials of breast
arrived in the Quebec laboratory. The babies Dewailly agonized
now 16 years old, about to pass to their own children the chemical
amassing in their bodies.
Top of the World
From ice-clinging algae to polar bears, the Arctic has a long
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
the cities of North America, Europe and Asia. They travel thousands
miles north via winds, ocean currents and rivers. In the Arctic,
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
Are in urban environments. PCBs and DDT in the fish and mammals
areas as the Great Lakes, the Baltic and the North Sea are 10
times higher in concentration than in the Arctic Ocean.
But most urban dwellers consume food from a host of sources,
comparatively limited amounts of seafood and no marine mammals
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
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
from plankton to people.
In newborns' umbilical cord blood and mothers' breast milk, average
and mercury levels are 20 to 50 times higher in remote villages
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
one of every six adults tested exceeds 200 parts per billion of
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,
specialist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's
toxic substances agency. "At that level, I would really expect
effects, such as paresthesia, an abnormal sensation, tingling
numbness, especially in the hands."
Few details are known about Russia's Siberia, but AMAP scientists
expected to soon release data showing that residents of the region
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
in most developed nations, peaked in the Arctic in the 1990s and
then have declined, although they remain at substantially higher
levels in people there than elsewhere.
Other compounds are increasing, including mercury and brominated
retardants called PBDEs. Much of the mercury comes from coal-burning
power plants, largely in Asia, while the United States is the
source of the flame retardants, used in plastics and polyurethane
Evidence has emerged recently that the contaminants are threatening
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
mercury and PCBs," according to a 2002 AMAP report.
Building up over a lifetime, chemicals stored in a mother's body
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
time that the risks of traditional foods seem to outweigh their
benefits, said Gina Muckle of Laval University's Department of
and Preventive Medicine in Quebec, who directed the study.
In Muckle's study, 11-month-old Nunavik babies were repeatedly
picture while researchers recorded how readily the children recognized
images they already had seen. The infants with high amounts of
their bodies were 10% less likely to recognize the images than
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
Great Lakes region.
Also in Nunavik, infants exposed in the womb to high levels of
PCBs suffered more ear and respiratory infections, particularly
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
known threats because Arctic children suffer extremely elevated
of ear infections, which often lead to hearing loss, and respiratory
"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
85% of Greenland. The island has no trees, no grass, no fertile
which means no cows, no pigs, no chickens, no grains, no vegetables,
Instead, the ocean is Greenland's food basket.
Sandwiched between Canada and Scandinavia, Greenland gets the
the world's contaminants because it is in the path of winds from
European and North American cities.
In the remote parts of Greenland, such as the Kristiansens' village
Qaanaaq, people eat marine mammals and seabirds 36 times a month
average, consuming about a pound of seal and whale each week.
one-third of their calories come from traditional foods.
"We eat seal meat as you eat cow in your country,"
Motzfeldt, who was Greenland's premier for almost 30 years and
its finance minister. "It's important for Greenlanders to
have meat on
The Inuit say their native food strengthens their bodies, warming
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
we eat what we do. We are not able to survive on other food,"
Rasmussen, a 52-year-old hunter from Nuuk, the capital of Greenland,
said through a translator. "Hunting is so important to us,
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,
Baffin Bay from Greenland, store-bought food for a family of four
cost $240 per week, more than one-third of the average family
there, according to a report by Canada's Northern Contaminants
Jose Kusugak, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the organization
representing Canadian Inuit, said he can buy "lame lettuce"
old oranges" and "dried up apples" in Nunavut,
or he can eat fresh and
nutritious beluga, walrus, fish and caribou. "There is really
alternative," he said.
In some respects, the marine diet has made the Inuit among the
healthiest people. Beluga whale meat has 10 times the iron of
twice the protein and five times the Vitamin A.
Omega 3 fatty acids in the seafood protect the Inuit from heart
and diabetes. Seventy-year-old Inuit men have coronary arteries
elastic as those of 20-year-old Danes, said Dr. Gert Mulvad of
Primary Health Care Clinic in Nuuk.
Although heart disease has increased with the introduction of
foods, especially among Greenlandic young people, it remains "more
less unknown," Mulvad said.
Public health officials are torn over whether to encourage the
continue eating their traditional diet or reduce their consumption.
"The first goal of medicine is to do no harm, so I'm not
convinced we should restrict beluga fat. It has a huge, huge beneficial
effect on cardiovascular disease," said Dewailly, who heads
health research at Laval University Medical Research Center.
Government officials and doctors fear that Inuit will switch
imported processed foods loaded with carbohydrates and sugar,
malnourishment, vitamin deficiencies, heart disease, diabetes
"The level of contamination is very high in Greenland, but
lot of Western food that is worse than the poisons," Mulvad
Greenland's home-rule government and doctors have issued no advisories.
Many Greenlanders are aware of the contamination, although they
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
Last year, Nunavik leaders initiated an experiment in three communities
that gives women free Arctic char, a fish high in fatty acids
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
greatly outweighed by other societal problems, including smoking,
suicide, domestic violence and binge drinking, which have a severe
immediate impact on life and death in the Arctic. For example,
than half of pregnant women in Greenland smoke cigarettes.
Those who are aware of the dangers of the toxic chemicals say
meats are too nutritious and important to give up.
"People say whale and seal are polluted, but they are still
foods to us," said Ujuunnguaq Heinrich, a minke whale and
Anthropologists warn that efforts to alter Inuit diets can unwittingly
cause irreversible cultural changes. If hunting is discouraged,
quickly would lose their traditional knowledge about the environment
and their hunting skills, as well as material items such as tools
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
nuances of nature that their national languages - English, Danish
French - ignore.
Wheelersburg said the most important damage would be to Inuit
and attitudes." In the Arctic's subsistence economy, people
among neighbors and relatives, even strangers. The best hunters
leaders in the village, and they are generous with their wealth.
Inuit switch to a cash society, that communal generosity would
disappear, Wheelersburg said.
"It's more than the food you are changing," Wheelersburg
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
to the scientists and political leaders fretting about how many
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
can hear and see: thinning ice conditions, the whereabouts of
where their next meat will come from. Anxiety about chemicals
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
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
afternoon, narwhal season has begun. Gedion and Mamarut head out
their sledges, their dogs racing 35 miles across the glacier,
the Kristiansens' ancestral hunting grounds, a narrow strip of
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
Gedion's son, Rasmus, now 6, will be paddling a kayak beside his
Gedion jokes that he lassos narwhals from his kayak like the
cowboys he has seen on television. A little over a century ago,
people of Qaanaaq had little contact with the Western world. Today,
they can buy salami and dental floss and Danish porn magazines
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
their diet, and no one has advised them to. Virtually every day,
eat seal meat and muktuk. With every bite, traces of mercury,
other chemicals amass in their bodies, to be passed on to their
"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
boys by generations of men. Their ancestors' memories, as vivid
dream, mingle with their own, inseparable.
"Qaatuppunga piniartarlunga," Mamarut said.
As far back as I can remember, I hunted.
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