By Stephen Hendrie
During the last week of January, a team of Inuit and researchers participated virtually in a meeting held in Geneva, Switzerland, reviewing a group of chemicals that cause harm to humans. Formally the event was the 17th annual meeting of the Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee to the Stockholm Convention. It’s known as POPRC-17.
Lucy Grey, from Kangirsuk, works at Makivvik as the Federal Affairs Liaison Officer. She is connected with research of this nature via the Inuit Crown Partnership Committee, and her previous job as Inuit Research Advisor at the Kativik Regional Government.
She and the other members of the group were planning on being in Geneva for the meeting, but the fifth COVID wave scuppered that plan. So Lucy was in Montreal with Laval University Professor and researcher Mélanie Lemire at an Air BnB. Fellow researcher Amira Aker at Laval University was at a different location in Montreal due to COVID. Eva Kruemmel, Research and Policy Advisor for the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) – a veteran of the POPRC process and other contaminants meetings – was in Germany.
The Montreal trio woke up each day at 3 am to get ready for the 9:30 am start – Geneva time! During the weeklong meeting, they made the case to support the ban on a group of 4,700 chemicals known as the “Forever Chemicals.” They are manmade chemicals used in many products such as waterproof clothes, take-out containers, food packaging, carpets and textiles, plastics, electronics, and dental floss. They have long names such as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl. They’re known as PFAS, for short.
Lucy Grey says finding a way to describe the “forever chemicals” in Inuktitut took some back and forth with translators. The literal translation is Sujurqajangitutsajait ᓱᔪᕐᖃᔭᖕᖏᑐᑦᓴᔭᐃᑦ – “ones that cannot break down,” says Lucy. “This is very true of what it is. They come up into the Arctic ecosystem and they don’t break down, so they end up in our bodies, they end up in the food chain.” She stressed that as with previous battles with mercury and PCBs in Nunavik, the benefits of eating country food outweigh the risks.
At the POPRC-17 meeting, the group brought the latest data from the Nunavik Inuit Health Survey “Qanuilirpitaa?” 2017. They also brought results from the “Pregnancy Wellness with Country Foods” project.
On Tuesday, January 25, they held a virtual side event to explain how these “forever chemicals” affect Inuit. Lucy Grey said, “the most concerning for us Inuit are the human health effects. The global community can find innovative ways to replace these chemicals with safe ones and still produce consumer goods. We shouldn’t be having these effects.”
While Lucy Grey put a human face on the issue for the estimated 200 participants online and in-person in Geneva, Mélanie and Amira brought their data alive using a PowerPoint presentation. It was a collaboration between 11 researchers in seven organizations.
The key findings indicate that the blood levels of the forever chemicals are up to seven times higher in Inuit than in the general Canadian population. They are highest among elders, and this is true of the general Canadian population as well. While they are higher in Inuit who consume marine mammals, fish, and seafood, country foods remain the healthiest for Inuit to consume.
Amira Aker says, “they affect the immune system, alter cholesterol levels, they’re linked to asthma and thyroid hormones.” Mélanie added, “they can unfortunately cross the placenta, and they can go to breast milk as well, so the prevention window is really during pregnancy, we don’t want these chemicals going to the baby.”
Mélanie credits Eva Kruemmel from ICC for helping them. “She mentored us. She was saying it would be fantastic if Canada could nominate these chemicals, and your data will be very important. And so we worked to publish our data, and presented it at the side event.”
Kitty Gordon is the Assistant Director of Public Health for the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services, and co-chair of the Nunavik Nutrition Health Committee. She contributed to the PowerPoint presentation at the side event. “It was pretty important to have an Inuit perspective at POPRC-17,” she said. “I think the more people know what’s happening to our region, the better.”
“Working together to make this happen was a really organic process,” says Eva Kruemmel. “It’s very important to have them listed on Schedule A for elimination. These chemicals are so persistent, there is really nothing that breaks them down, not even the sun, water, or bacteria.”
At the close of the week, ICC issued a press release noting that Inuit scored a victory in working with Canada to have the group of “forever chemicals” treated all together using the precautionary principle. The formal submission by Canada was to regulate “long-chain perfluorocarboxylic acids, their salts and related compounds.” While it will take years to have the group of chemicals banned and replaced with safer ones, the process has begun.
Nunavik Inuit can be proud that the people who participated in the Qanuilirpitaa? research years ago have helped leaders make decisions which will have a beneficial effect for Inuit around the circumpolar regions, and for the rest of the planet, as these harmful chemicals are eliminated and eventually replaced.
Here’s the Data!
Results of the Qanuilirpitaa? 2017 study were published in December 2021. The report is available online at https://nrbhss.ca/en/nrbhss/public-health/health-surveys/qanuilirpitaa-2017.