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Ancestral Diet Gone Toxic

By Marla Cone

QAANAAQ, Greenland - Pitching a makeshift tent on the sea ice, where
The Arctic Ocean meets the North Atlantic, brothers Mamarut and Gedion
Kristiansen are ready to savor their favorite meal.

Nearby lies the carcass of a narwhal, a reclusive beast with an ivory
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 camp
stove. The family dips hunting knives into the kettle, pulling out
steaming ribs of freshly killed ringed seal and devouring the hearty
meat with some hot black tea.

Living closer to the North Pole than to any city, factory or farm, the
Kristiansens appear unscathed by any industrial-age ills. They live
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 to their
hunting grounds in extraordinary amounts, their close connection to the
environment and their ancestral diet of marine mammals have left the
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, contain
the highest human concentrations of industrial chemicals and pesticides
found anywhere on Earth - levels so extreme that the breast milk and
tissues of some Greenlanders could be classified as hazardous waste.

Nearly all Inuit tested in Greenland and more than half in Canada have
levels of PCBs and mercury exceeding international health guidelines.

Perched atop a contaminated food chain, the inhabitants of the Arctic
have become the industrialized world's lab rats, the involuntary
subjects of an accidental human experiment demonstrating what can
happen when a heaping brew of chemicals builds up in human bodies.

Studies of infants in Greenland and Arctic Canada who have been exposed
in the womb and through breast milk suggest that the chemicals are
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 least in
part, for the Arctic's inordinate number of sick babies. They believe
the neurological damage to newborns is similar in scope to the harm
done if the mothers drank moderate amounts of alcohol while pregnant.

The tragedy for the Inuit is that they have few, if any, ways to
Protect themselves. Many Arctic natives say that abandoning their traditional foods would destroy a 4,000-year-old society rooted in hunting.

In this hostile and isolated expanse of glacier-carved bedrock and
frozen sea, survival means that people live as marine mammals live,
hunting like they do, wearing their skins. No factory-engineered fleece
compares with the warmth of a sealskin parka, mittens and boots. No
motorboat sneaks up on a whale like a handmade kayak latched together
with rope. No snowmobile flexes with the ice like a dog-pulled sledge
crafted of driftwood.

And no imported food nourishes their bodies, warms their spirit and
strengthens their hearts like the flesh they slice from the flanks of a
whale or seal.

"Our foods do more than nourish our bodies. They feed our souls," said
the late Ingmar Egede, a Greenlandic educator who promoted the rights
of indigenous peoples. "When many things in our lives are changing, our
foods remain the same. They make us feel the same as they have for

"When I eat Inuit foods, I know who I am."

Unexpected Poisons

In 1987, Dr. Eric Dewailly, an epidemiologist at Laval University in
Quebec, was surveying contaminants in breast milk of mothers near the
industrialized, heavily polluted Gulf of St. Lawrence when he met a
midwife from Nunavik, the Arctic portion of Quebec province. She asked
whether he wanted to gather milk samples from women there. Dewailly
reluctantly agreed, thinking it might be useful as "blanks," samples
with nondetectable pollution levels.

A few months later, the first batch of samples from Nunavik - glass
vials holding a half-cup of milk from each of 24 women - arrived by air
mail at the lab in Quebec.

Dewailly soon got a phone call from the 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 checking more breast milk, the scientists soon realized that the
peaks were, in fact, accurate: The Arctic mothers had seven times more
PCBs in their milk than mothers in Canada's biggest cities.

Dewailly contacted the World Health Organization in Geneva, where an
expert in chemical safety told him that the PCB levels were the highest
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 of
contaminants. "It isn't supposed to be a poison."

Nearly a generation has passed since those first vials of breast milk
arrived in the Quebec laboratory. The babies Dewailly agonized over are
now 16 years old, about to pass to their own children the chemical load
amassing in their bodies.

Top of the World

From ice-clinging algae to polar bears, the Arctic has a long and
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 in
the cities of North America, Europe and Asia. They travel thousands of
miles north via winds, ocean currents and rivers. In the Arctic, the
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 they
Are in urban environments. PCBs and DDT in the fish and mammals of such
areas as the Great Lakes, the Baltic and the North Sea are 10 to 100
times higher in concentration than in the Arctic Ocean.

But most urban dwellers consume food from a host of sources, eating
comparatively limited amounts of seafood and no marine mammals or other
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 the
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 step up,
from plankton to people.

In newborns' umbilical cord blood and mothers' breast milk, average PCB
and mercury levels are 20 to 50 times higher in remote villages of
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 live,
one of every six adults tested exceeds 200 parts per billion of mercury
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, a mercury
specialist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's
toxic substances agency. "At that level, I would really expect to see
effects, such as paresthesia, an abnormal sensation, tingling or
numbness, especially in the hands."

Few details are known about Russia's Siberia, but AMAP scientists are
expected to soon release data showing that residents of the region are
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 ago
in most developed nations, peaked in the Arctic in the 1990s and since
then have declined, although they remain at substantially higher levels in people there than elsewhere.

Other compounds are increasing, including mercury and brominated flame
retardants called PBDEs. Much of the mercury comes from coal-burning
power plants, largely in Asia, while the United States is the major
source of the flame retardants, used in plastics and polyurethane foam.

Evidence has emerged recently that the contaminants are threatening the
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 for
mercury and PCBs," according to a 2002 AMAP report.

Building up over a lifetime, chemicals stored in a mother's body cross
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 the first
time that the risks of traditional foods seem to outweigh their
benefits, said Gina Muckle of Laval University's Department of Social
and Preventive Medicine in Quebec, who directed the study.

In Muckle's study, 11-month-old Nunavik babies were repeatedly shown a
picture while researchers recorded how readily the children recognized
images they already had seen. The infants with high amounts of PCBs in
their bodies were 10% less likely to recognize the images than infants
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 the
Great Lakes region.

Also in Nunavik, infants exposed in the womb to high levels of DDT and
PCBs suffered more ear and respiratory infections, particularly in the
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 of the
known threats because Arctic children suffer extremely elevated rates
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 - covers
85% of Greenland. The island has no trees, no grass, no fertile soil,
which means no cows, no pigs, no chickens, no grains, no vegetables, no
fruit orchards.

Instead, the ocean is Greenland's food basket.

Sandwiched between Canada and Scandinavia, Greenland gets the brunt of
the world's contaminants because it is in the path of winds from both
European and North American cities.

In the remote parts of Greenland, such as the Kristiansens' village of
Qaanaaq, people eat marine mammals and seabirds 36 times a month on
average, consuming about a pound of seal and whale each week. About
one-third of their calories come from traditional foods.

"We eat seal meat as you eat cow in your country," said Jonathan
Motzfeldt, who was Greenland's premier for almost 30 years and is now
its finance minister. "It's important for Greenlanders to have meat on
the table."

The Inuit say their native food strengthens their bodies, warming them
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 by accident
we eat what we do. We are not able to survive on other food," Lars
Rasmussen, a 52-year-old hunter from Nuuk, the capital of Greenland,
said through a translator. "Hunting is so important to us, so
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, across
Baffin Bay from Greenland, store-bought food for a family of four would
cost $240 per week, more than one-third of the average family income
there, according to a report by Canada's Northern Contaminants Program.

Jose Kusugak, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the organization
representing Canadian Inuit, said he can buy "lame lettuce" and "really
old oranges" and "dried up apples" in Nunavut, or he can eat fresh and
nutritious beluga, walrus, fish and caribou. "There is really no
alternative," he said.

In some respects, the marine diet has made the Inuit among the world's
healthiest people. Beluga whale meat 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 Inuit from heart disease
and diabetes. Seventy-year-old Inuit men have coronary arteries as
elastic as those of 20-year-old Danes, said Dr. Gert Mulvad of the
Primary Health Care Clinic in Nuuk.

Although heart disease has increased with the introduction of processed
foods, especially among Greenlandic young people, it remains "more or
less unknown," Mulvad said.

Public health officials are torn over whether to encourage the Inuit to
continue eating their traditional diet or reduce their consumption.

"The first goal of medicine is to do no harm, so I'm not absolutely
convinced we should restrict beluga fat. It has a huge, huge beneficial
effect on cardiovascular disease," said Dewailly, who heads public
health research at Laval University Medical Research Center.

Government officials and doctors fear that Inuit will switch to
imported processed foods loaded with carbohydrates and sugar, risking
malnourishment, vitamin deficiencies, heart disease, diabetes and

"The level of contamination is very high in Greenland, but there's a
lot of Western food that is worse than the poisons," Mulvad said.

Greenland's home-rule government and doctors have issued no advisories.
Many Greenlanders are aware of the contamination, although they know
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 to give.

Last year, Nunavik leaders initiated an experiment in three communities
that gives women free Arctic char, a fish high in fatty acids but low
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 are
greatly outweighed by other societal problems, including smoking,
suicide, domestic violence and binge drinking, which have a severe and
immediate impact on life and death in the Arctic. For example, more
than half of pregnant women in Greenland smoke cigarettes.

Those who are aware of the dangers of the toxic chemicals say their
meats are too nutritious and important to give up.

"People say whale and seal are polluted, but they are still healthy
foods to us," said Ujuunnguaq Heinrich, a minke whale and seal hunter
in Nuuk.

Anthropologists warn that efforts to alter Inuit diets can unwittingly
cause irreversible cultural changes. If hunting is discouraged, people
quickly would lose their traditional knowledge about the environment
and their hunting skills, as well as material items such as tools and
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 the
nuances of nature that their national languages - English, Danish and
French - ignore.

Wheelersburg said the most important damage would be to Inuit "values
and attitudes." In the Arctic's subsistence economy, people share prey
among neighbors and relatives, even strangers. The best hunters are
leaders in the village, and they are generous with their wealth. If the
Inuit switch to a cash society, that communal generosity would
disappear, Wheelersburg said.

"It's more than the food you are changing," Wheelersburg said. "It's
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 oblivious
to the scientists and political leaders fretting about how many parts
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 they
can hear and see: thinning ice conditions, the whereabouts of whales,
where their next meat will come from. Anxiety about chemicals is left
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 of
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 June
afternoon, narwhal season has begun. Gedion and Mamarut head out on
their sledges, their dogs racing 35 miles across the glacier, toward
the Kristiansens' ancestral hunting grounds, a narrow strip of sapphire
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 before
Gedion's son, Rasmus, now 6, will be paddling a kayak beside his

Gedion jokes that he lassos narwhals from his kayak like the American
cowboys he has seen on television. A little over a century ago, the
people of Qaanaaq had little contact with the Western world. Today,
they can buy salami and dental floss and Danish porn magazines in their
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 changed
their diet, and no one has advised them to. Virtually every day, they
eat seal meat and muktuk. With every bite, traces of mercury, PCBs and
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 of
boys by generations of men. Their ancestors' memories, as vivid as a
dream, mingle with their own, inseparable.

"Qaatuppunga piniartarlunga," Mamarut said.

As far back as I can remember, I hunted.

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