Natives concerned about contamination in subsistence foods

Posted: Thursday, May 04, 2000

ANCHORAGE -- Some Alaska Natives are beginning to avoid traditional foods out of concerns they're contaminated with pesticides, heavy metals and other toxins.

Mike Zacharof, president of the Aleut International Association, said many people on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs are afraid seal livers contain mercury.

And Patricia Cochran, director of the Alaska Native Science Commission, said people around Prince William Sound no longer eat traditional foods because they may have been contaminated by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

``This impacts not only our physical well-being but our emotional and spiritual lives as well,'' Cochran said.

Scientific studies and local experience point to growing evidence of pollutants accumulating in the Arctic food chain.

Delegates at an international conference on Arctic pollution meeting this week in Anchorage told how Natives from around Alaska have been seeing more tumors, lesions, spots and sores appearing on land and sea animals.

Their concerns are being documented in a report by the Native science commission, which is incorporating traditional knowledge into scientific research.

Research by the multinational Circumpolar Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program has revealed high levels of the pesticide DDT in the breast milk of Russian mothers in Arctic regions.

Other research has turned up elevated levels of pollutants in marine mammals, including polar bears, seals, and beluga and bowhead whales.

The Tanana Chiefs Conference, a tribal social services agency for the Alaska Interior based in Fairbanks, has detected high levels of DDT in salmon.

Scientists believe many of the pollutants originate in places far from the Arctic but make their way northward by way of ocean movements, river currents and wind patterns.

The cold climate makes it difficult for those substances to break down. As a result, scientists increasingly are referring to the Arctic as a ``sink'' for much of the world's poisons.

Alaska has the added burden of being home to a number of Cold War-era military sites contaminated with such hazardous substances as PCBs and dioxins. Some of the bases are in rich fishing areas such as Adak in the Aleutians and St. Lawrence Island.

A recent study by a State University of New York scientist determined that the sites probably will continue to be sources of environmental pollution for decades.

Another study, by the University of Alaska Anchorage, indicates that pregnant Alaska Native women who eat subsistence foods may be exposing their fetuses to potentially dangerous pollutants.

``There's no question that people are concerned not only about what it's going to do to them but to their unborn children,'' Cochran said.

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