Between 100 and 150 Ouje-Bougoumou residents will undergo comprehensive health testing this summer as part of an expanded study to determine if decades of gold and copper mining contaminated the local environment and food chain with toxic heavy metals.
The newly created Cree Regional Public Health Department has mandated Drs. Evert Nieboer and Eric Dewailly to undertake the study. It follows the recommendations they made in an independent review of last year’s preliminary study by New Hampshire researcher Christopher Covel.
Nieboer is a toxicology professor at McMaster University, while Dewailly works for the provincial ministry of health. Dewailly said in a telephone interview they are new collecting the kinds of information, including dietary habits, they will use to create the protocol, or framework, for the study. He says it will evaluate the exposure among the people of Ouje-Bougoumou to contaminants such as arsenic and cadmium.
They will take samples of biological tissues and bodily fluids from between 100 and 150 Ouje residents as well as a “control group” from another Cree community for purposes of comparison. He said a community meeting in mid-June will provide more information on the study.
The Ccvel study found levels of heavy metals in Cree hair samples to be many times normal levels. The study raised concern in the community, but was criticized by provincial health authorities. However, according to Manon Dugas, project manager for the Cree Public Health Department, no future role for Covel is foreseen.
Dugas admits the initial Covel study came as a shock. “The level of concern for us was huge,” she said. “But that report was released without us knowing the study was going on. We discussed that with the Ouje community. It was not intentional to keep the Cree Health Board out of the process. At the beginning we were kind of shocked. But new we want to look to the future, in the right direction. Now we are united, hand in hand, and they know we want the same thing they want. We want to protect the Cree.” Dugas also acknowledges the political sensitivity the issue poses. “It’s a very delicate question. And that’s why we chose not to alert the media, because there were already too much politics. Now we have an agreement with the ministry of health, with the National Institute of Public Health, and we have a good relationship with the Ouje community, so we are developing a nice working atmosphere.” She says Ouje residents can be assured the study will be free of political influence because it is under the direction of Dr.
Nieboer. “But if we had only an independent expert,” she pointed out, “we wouldn’t have credibility with the ministry of health. You have the two poles. You have to get credibility with the ministry, because if there are actions to be undertaken, then they won’t contest it. For instance, if there is some environmental cleanup to be done, we need the agreement of the ministry of the environment. If they don’t agree with the results of the research, they will contest it to no end. And nothing gets done.” Dugas says the provincial environment ministry will conduct the environmental component of the study, however. “It’s very complex,” she noted. “You have to assess the fish, the aquatic plants, the border plants and the wildlife to see if the food chain is contaminated. I think this is a longer process than the health study.” Dugas says the protocol for the new study will also consider lifestyle issues, such as smoking (which Nieboer suggested was responsible for elevated levels of cadmium) and the use of lead shot for hunting. She admits the link to lead shot is controversial, however. “It’s dangerous to mention, because the advantages of consuming wild food are much greater than the risk of being contaminated with lead,” Dugas said.
Depending on the study’s results, there may also be a large impact on future resource-extraction policies in the region, she says. “If they find out the people are contaminated from the environment, hypothetically speaking, hopefully they will look at the past at the policies that permitted that In the United States, there have already been similar cases. And the political pressure by the Cree and environmental groups would be huge. With forestry, the dear-cutting is still being practiced. This is very political, so we can never be sure the action will be taken, but the research will be there and we will push the province to act. As the public health department, we will be the ones pushing on that because that is our role to protect the health of the people.”