There are grounds for a preliminary health study among the Ouje-Bougoumou Cree, but no need of a full-blown program of detoxification of heavy metals among community members. That’s the conclusion reached by a third-party review of last fall’s Christopher Covel study of toxic contaminants in the water, wildlife and people of Ouje-Bougoumou caused by decades of gold and copper mining.

McMaster University toxicology professor Evert Nieboer authored the review, which was delivered to the Ouje band council April 16. A copy was obtained by The Nation.

Nieboer wrote that a health study and an environmental assessment may “help reduce the level of anxiety in the Ouje-Bougoumou communities.” But he criticized Covel’s reliance on hair sampling of 23 Ouje individuals to call for a major health intervention among all community residents.

“For the elements other than mercury, the scientific basis is not in place for hair concentrations alone to trigger health-related interventions among environmentally exposed individuals,” Nieboer wrote. “Of the elements assessed in hair in the present study, mercury and lead are of some concern and follow-up seems warranted.” He also said the level of concern is “moderate.” Nieboer also suggested abnormally high levels of cadmium and lead may be due to lifestyle issues. Cadmium, he suggested, could present in hair samples could be due to cigarette smoking or exposure to second-hand smoke. As for lead, Nieboer wrote that consumption “of traditional foods obtained through hunting constitutes another potential lead source. Exposure from the use of leaded ammunition and consumption of contaminated food has been documented by us among the James Bay Cree communities and other First Nations communities.” Last October, New Hampshire geologist Christopher Covel completed his study based on testing for heavy metals in human hair samples, fish, water and sludge near mine tailings sites. Ouje residents had for years complained of catching horribly deformed fish, many missing scales, fins or eyes.

Covel’s investigation found that the hair from Cree test subjects showed levels of selenium three times higher than average, levels four times higher for lead and five times higher for aluminum. Worrying levels of arsenic, mercury, manganese and cyanide were also found in some test samples.

Covel concluded that “the sample provides convincing evidence that the exposure to toxins due to the mine tailings or lumbering is transmitted through the food web and absorbed by a substantial number of Ouje Bougoumou Cree of different ages, sex, and life patterns.” Dartmouth College professor Roger Masters, president of the Foundation for Neuroscience and Society in Hanover, NH, reviewed and interpreted Covel’s data. And the two recommended a vastly expanded study of soils, groundwater and fish, and an immediate program for the identification and detoxification of heavy metals in the Ouje-Bougoumou Cree. They say the heavy metals put the Cree at risk of cancers, learning disabilities and can cause aggressive behaviours by affecting the brain’s uptake of dopamine.

The Nieboer report was commissioned as an independent overview after Quebec public health authorities heavily criticized the work by Covel and Masters.

For Ouje-Bougoumou Chief Sam Bosum, it’s tough to decide who, or what, to believe. “The government didn’t like the Covel report,” he said. “It says the problem is quite serious. Others don’t think so. That’s why we got the third-party report.” Bosum also pointed out that only two of the 30 local mines are now operating, leading to high job losses in the Chibougamou area. A political controversy over an environmental catastrophe would make reopening many of those mines difficult, and could forestall a proposed vanadium mine in the region.

The ball has now bounced back to Quebec City. The band council will review Neiboer’s report before taking a position. The band will meet with provincial authorities, likely near the end of May, to negotiate what environmental and health initiatives, if any, are required.

Roger Masters, for his part, responds to Nieboer’s criticisms of his and Covel’s methodology by saying that hair sampling is only an initial step to determine if more in-depth study, such as blood testing, is required. And he’s convinced it is.

“Our proposal is to test the entire population of Ouje-Bougoumou,” he said. “If you think of the risks of those mines, it’s very clear from what we’ve already done that there are a lot of toxins in that environment.” At the same time, Masters suspects the province wants many of the mines to be reopened, and that may explain the foot-dragging on the issue. “The trade-off between money and health is a disaster,” he warned. “If some people get money by poisoning children, I think this is immoral and I cannot remain silent.”