I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay for inviting me to attend the 12th International Neurotoxicology Conference in Hot Springs, Arkansas, USA. The conference was on the neurotoxicity of low-level methyl-mercury exposure.
Mercury seems to be a major concern not only in North America but all over the world. The presentations were very interesting but at times very technical. Some of the subjects presented were studies done concerning methylmercury exposure of specific populations, environment and marine life.
The methylmercury surveillance program has been going on for the last 20 years in the Native community of Grassy Narrows in southern Ontario since an acute exposure to methylmercury of the community residents in the early 1970s. Some paper mills dumped their toxic wastes in the river close by the community. Consequently, the population was advised not to eat fish from the river because of their contamination by methyl-mercury.
Dr. Brian Wheatly, medical director of Health and Welfare Canada, explained how the mercury problem affected the eating habits of the people living in these communities.
At the time, they did not think of the impact and the consequences of such recommendations on the population’s health. The fact that people stopped eating fish led to more problems such as an increased incidence of diabetes as well as various social problems.
He also kept reminding the participants that the dietary recommendations given to the population, especially fish-eating populations, should be considered carefully in order to prevent any abrupt changes in their dietand to think about all the possible consequences of those recommendations. He also presented a study that was done on development of Cree boys in the Waswanipi region in the late 1970s.
The Inuit populations of northern Canada are concerned with PCBs and methylmercury exposure since this population subsists mostly on marine animals. There were studies done on infants that were prenatally exposed to PCBs and methylmercury.
In the Seychelles Islands, in the Indian Ocean, there has been a project going on for the last four years concerning children who have been exposed to methylmercury before birth (during pregnancy). The purpose of this research was to determine if the children have suffered health effects due to exposure to methylmercury. Even though the project is not completed yet, it appears there were hardly any abnormalities found in the development of those children.
Many countries in the world are still using coal as a source of heating. Coal is now recognized as one of the pollutants that increase the amount of mercury in the environment and the risk of exposure to methylmercury for the human.
In the Amazon, Southern America, there are a lot of gold mining activities that are going on without any environmental regulations. Chemicals containing mercury that is used to extract the gold from the ore are being dumped directly into the rivers. The methylmercury is absorbed by the fish. The population living along the Amazon River are exposed to methylmercury as they get the fish in the river for their daily food. The gold miners are also at risk of methylmercury exposure as they have no protection against the mercury vapour which itself is a health hazard.
One other topic brought up was the use of the fillings in dentistry. The fillings contain a small amount of mercury and it is thought that the mercury vapour could be absorbed by the client and the dentist. There were contradictory opinions as to whether this is dangerous or not.
In closing, although I did not always understand at times because of the technical terms used in the presentations, I feel that I have learned a lot.
Pauline Langdon is the Community Health Representative in Chisasibi.