Alaska Natives seek explanation for recent rise in cancer rates

Posted: Tuesday, June 21, 2005

FAIRBANKS - Alaska Natives have seen runny bone marrow in moose and caribou, and lesions and parasites in fish - and that makes Shawna Larson wonder if toxic chemicals in these traditional foods are making people sick, too.

"We see things our elders never used to see," she said at the 60th American Chemical Society Northwest Conference. "Why do we have cancer? Why do we have high diabetes?"

Larson, who works for Alaska Community Action on Toxins, and others say the anecdotal evidence linking sickness in the wild food supply to illness in humans needs to be studied.

She also is working to change the way federal standards are used to measure harmful levels of toxins in Alaska's wild foods.

Cancer is the leading cause of death among Alaska Natives, yet 50 years ago the disease was rare.

"Something is wrong," said Larson, who also works for the Indigenous Environmental Network. "We just want to know why we are sick."

Federal standards for measuring harmful levels of contaminants are based on the number of fish meals that would sicken a 160-pound white male.

But Larson says the government also should consider constant low-level exposure because Native people eat fish more regularly.

Scientific studies suggest high rates of obesity and tobacco use, not chemicals in the food chain, explain the corresponding rates of cancer and other diseases in the Native population.

Research by the federal Environmental Protection Agency found that fish in Cook Inlet contained low levels of contamination and were safe to eat.

Some scientists at the conference acknowledged the need to further study possible environmental causes for sickness among Alaska Natives.

"There is a gap between science and public opinion," said Augustine Arukwe, a biology professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

But he said word-of-mouth isn't enough to prove a real connection between high disease rates and the traditional wild food supply.

"Science is rigid," Arukwe said. "To do good science you have to do a certain procedure."

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