Whitehorse Daily Star

Extra food chain monitoring urged

The Canadian Polar Commission wants the federal government to set up a program focused on the northern food chain. Ideally, it would monitor the effects on human health of country food that has contaminants in it.

By Whitehorse Star on December 10, 1996

The commission has released a report with strong warnings around the issue of northern country foods. It says Ottawa must continue to research contaminants and public health.

Commission chair Whit Fraser said in an interview Monday that the report is “very strong” because “we chose not to get into the mushy middle.

“We think, frankly, that that is usually where the federal departments are...(the issue of) contaminants are stuck in the mushy middle ... telling people that there are all these concerns with contaminants, but the nutritional value of country food far outweighs any risk.”

Governments are afraid to alarm people, said the former CBC TV journalist.

“Well, so am I, but I am also equally afraid of being too complacent.

“Our clear message is no one should throw their country food off their plate tonight and throw up their hands in despair.

“What they should do is enjoy the meal and also ask their politicians and others to make damn sure that their interests are protected, so that in five or 10 years’ time, they will be able to consume in confidence.

“We don’t know that we will be able to consume food in confidence, and you can’t wait until the levels (of contaminants) are such that you can’t eat the food to begin reducing them. You have to see that they never reach that level.”

Fraser said a “national” northern program in food contaminants must continue.

“We say ‘national’ because the previous program didn’t touch Labrador or Arctic Quebec, and yet they share in the same northern climate and same food stocks.”

The commission has been collecting research. It shows that the North is a sponge for pollutants and contaminants which come into its ecosystem from all over the world.

The commission’s contaminants program runs out of funding this year. However, the commission itself has future funding, said Fraser.

A new program on contaminants should be “very focused on the northern food supply and the human health of northern people,” he said.

He described a future program as “doing research and watching the animals that people are eating, and having a system of checking it for the various contaminants in northern laboratories.

“Then reporting directly to the communities as to what the findings are to maintain confidence or to sound alarm bells where appropriate, because alarm bells may have to be sounded.”

In southern Canada, food is checked on a regular basis, he noted, and there’s no reason the North cannot do the same.

“Agriculture Canada or whoever does it doesn’t check every chicken or every pound of beef, but somebody looks at it under a microscope from time to time.”

Future work in monitoring contaminants should be done by more than one government agency, said Fraser. Northern governments should also be involved.

“We do not think that the best interests of northern peoples are met when one government department takes on responsibility for the health and the food and all the rest of it.”

There must be independent agencies involved “to be eyes and ears in this.” So far, $25 million has been spent directly in the northern contaminants program over the last five years, said Fraser.

“That’s a pretty huge amount of money. To close the door now, when you know you’ve raised more questions than you have answered, and that you might have some very serious health issues 10 or 20 years down the road ... imagine the cost of inaction and walking away from it now, with the kind of investment that’s already been made.” The levels of PCBs in the milk of mothers in the Baffin region has been found to be significantly higher than those in the rest of Canada.

PCBs are linked to weak immune systems, infertility and birth defects.

Dr. Fred Roots, a researcher with Environment Canada, says it cannot be proved at this time that people are sick with contaminants. However, it is the children and grandchildren who are at risk, he believes.


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