The Crees of Ouje-Bougoumou are healthier because they consume wild game and fish, but they must still be careful about eating wild game and fish.
That’s the seemingly contradictory conclusion of a year-long study of toxic contamination in fluid and hair samples of 200 Ouje residents.
The study, titled “Exposure and preliminary health assessment of the Ouje-Bougoumou Cree population to mine tailings residues,” was lead by McMaster University toxicologist Evert Nieboer and Quebec physician Eric Dewailly. It was released to Ouje residents during a community meeting Sept. 3.
It found “moderately elevated” levels of mine tailings elements in Ouje Crees compared to a control group of 100 Nemaska residents, especially of arsenic and copper. But the study concluded people in Ouje are not at risk of systemic exposure to these potentially toxic substances.
The study blames high cadmium and lead levels on smoking and the use of lead shot in hunting. Meanwhile, higher mercury and PCB levels are linked to consumption of contaminated predator fish such as walleye and trout.
“We found some surprises, both positive and negative,” Nieboer told the Nation in an interview.
For instance, fatty acids and cholesterol levels were better than expected in Ouje Bougoumou residents, he notes. Nieboer relates that finding to fish consumption and says it reduces the risk of heart disease. “To have the actual data was very convincing.”
A negative surprise was in the unexpected presence in the Ouje Cree of high levels of organochlorines – especially residues of the insecticide DDT.
High levels were found in people over 40 who consumed a diet rich in fish
“The levels are high compared to the Inuit and other Native peoples,” Nieboer says. “We cannot discount the possibility it may be supplemented by special sources, especially Lac Chibougamau and Lac Dore.”
But Matthew Wapachee Sr. was disappointed the study or the community meeting didn’t talk about solutions for his favourite fish foods – lake trout and walleye – in Chibougamau and Dore lakes.
“That’s what I wanted to hear, but they didn’t talk about that, only the sicknesses,” said Wapachee. “It’s been three years now I haven’t fished in Chibougamau lake. I used to eat the fish there all the time. Not now.”
Wapachee and his family live on Chibougamau River, near both lakes. He says he must now drive 50 km to fetch drinking water for the family.
Nieboer told the Nation that organochlorine contamination is suspected of causing cancer, and has been associated with disrupted endocrine function and disturbed menstrual cycles.
“There is a genuine concern focused on children and women of reproductive age,” Nieboer says. “Huge exposures (of organochlorines) can have acute effects.”
Thus the report recommends guidelines on the consumption of wild game. “The regular consumption of game liver and kidney is not advocated,” it says. “A concern arises because persistent contaminants accumulate in kidney (especially cadmium) and in liver (e.g., cadmium, mercury and PCBs).”
But Nieboer concludes from the data he and Dewailly collected that while there is some cause for concern, there is no evidence of the medical emergency New Hampshire researcher Christopher Covel warned of in an initial study three years ago.
“There is not a health emergency,” Nieboer says. “There are some concerns about PCBs. But we have to be wise. It’s very clear from the study that subsistence food is healthy. But we need guidelines. If a woman is pregnant, she should eat less predator fish and more white fish. It’s not giving up these foods, but being wise about it. I feel strongly about that.”
Covel, for his part, finds the recommendations inconsistent. “Where in the report does it say anything about how mine tailings affect the health of the people?” Covel asks. “One minute it’s saying everything’s okay. Then it’s saying don’t eat the fish. It’s not a big, complex issue. There’s contamination. It’s in the ecosystem, in the biota. And it’s being eaten by Homo sapiens. And the Homo sapiens are getting ill and dying. Any questions?”
Matthew Wapachee doesn’t have any question about what caused the contamination. “The mining caused all that,” he says angrily. “I thought they would clean it up. But the mining companies came in and took everything worth money and left all the bad stuff behind in the lake.”
Wapachee is not hopeful the health or environmental studies will amount to much. “It sounds like they don’t want to bother with it. But we can’t wait 20 years to clean it up. If you see where I live on the river, the water doesn’t look nice. It’s brown and the rocks on the shore are covered with a black mud. But it’s not mud, you know?”
At 72 years old, Wapachee is looking to what kind of legacy he will make of his fishing territory that now can’t be used for fishing. “When I die, what do I have to give to my children? Dirty water.”
1. The impact on the general environment of the elements related to mine tailing residues should be assessed as part of the ongoing environmental risk assessment, even though there is no evidence for unusual intake by humans.
2. The source of the organochlorines PCBs and DDT/DDE should be investigated as part of the ongoing environmental risk assessment.
3. Replacement of leaded ammunition should continue to be encouraged.
4. Is is recommended that consumption guidelines for subsistence foods be reviewed, updated and their use by the Cree communities should continue to be promoted. The following factors should be incorporated in a more formal consumption guideline program. Routine monitoring of local fish tissues and kidney, liver and fatty tissues of piscivorous fowl and of game should be initiated. Consumption guidelines should be based on the biomonitoring results obtained for fish caught in local lakes and rivers and for wildfowl and game bagged in the communities’ hunting grounds. The importance of consuming subsistence foods in maintaining health should continue to be factored in.
5. The regular consumption ofgame liver and kidney is not advocated. A concern arises because persistent contaminants accumulate in kidney (especially cadmium) and in liver (e.g., cadmium, mercury and PCBs).
6. Anti-smoking interventions are likely to yeld significant health benefits.