Arctic toxins affect babies' brains in different ways

Canada and Greenland's Inuit are the most contaminated humans on Earth

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      This synopsis was previously published by Environmental Health News

      By EHN staff

      Babies in Arctic Canada are at risk of specific effects on their mental abilities, depending on which contaminants they are exposed to in the womb, according to a new study.

      While lead, methylmercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) all are linked to neurological effects, each seems to have a different effect on infants, the scientists concluded. For example, PCBs seemed to impair the babies’ ability to recognize things they have seen.

      The study involved 94 Inuit infants and their mothers from Nunavik, in northern Quebec. PCBs, mercury, and other pollutants hitchhike north via prevailing winds and currents from industrialized areas and then accumulate in food webs, predominantly in the eastern Arctic.

      Inuit eat from top of food chain

      Because the Inuit in Canada and Greenland eat top predators such as beluga whales and seals, they are among the world’s most contaminated human beings.

      The scientists measured the babies’ prenatal exposure to the three contaminants by testing cord blood; they then administered standard mental-development tests at 6.5 months and 11 months. The tests involve retrieving toys from under cloth covers, recognizing photographs, and performing tasks related to motor skills.

      The research was designed to pinpoint the exact damage inflicted on developing brains, which will help experts determine which effects to look for when the children reach school age.

      PCBs, lead have different effects

      “Each contaminant was independently associated with impairment of distinct aspects of cognitive function with long-term implications for cognitive development—PCBs with visual recognition memory, methylmercury with working memory and an early precursor of executive function, lead with processing speed—deficits that can already be detected during the first year of life,” the authors wrote.

      For the research, scientists at Quebec’s Centre de Recherche du CHUQ, who have been studying effects of contaminants on Inuit children for two decades, teamed up with Wayne State University scientists who conducted groundbreaking work in the Great Lakes linking PCBs to reduced IQs in the 1990s.

      “This specificity is consistent with our previous findings suggesting that the recognition-memory deficit is specific to prenatal PCB exposure and different from effects of other neurotoxicants, including alcohol and cocaine,” the authors wrote.

      Data consistent with other studies

      Similar findings have been reported for children in Michigan; Oswego, New York; the Faroe Islands; and Taiwan—all areas where many babies are highly exposed to PCBs or mercury from their mothers’ consumption of fish or marine mammals.

      “These data provide compelling evidence for the utility of narrow-band measures of infant cognition in studies of neurotoxic pollutants,” the researchers wrote.

      They added that their findings support efforts in Nunavik to reduce consumption of marine mammals. Pregnant women there are urged to eat Arctic char and other finfish instead.

      Environmental Health News is a foundation-funded environmental news service. EHN publishes its own journalism and provides daily access to worldwide environmental news.


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      margot izard

      May 10, 2014 at 6:15am

      It seems to be the great Canadian secret that seals and other marine mammals have been known, since the 90s, to carry Brucellosis. Infected livestock would be considered a catastrophe, and not just their meat but all parts would be treated as if just short of nuclear waste.

      This means Inuit seal consumption, again in the press recently, as usual as if what objections to the seal hunt are all about, the usual PR fog for the commercial seal hunt.

      The pelt price for seals is certainly rock bottom now, but so is the demand for seal meat. While greedy dealers and their political pals blame enviro terrorists for their losses, perhaps the potent reason for the latest profit flop is the whack of diseases marine mammals now struggle to survive. Along with the toxins. All of which our northern citizens have a traditional right, however now tragic, to consume.

      For the Brucellosis details, check out this '06 report:

      Lots of scientific findings back up Debbie Mackenzie's message. Is she our next Frances Kelsey?


      May 10, 2014 at 7:34pm

      Thought they were the most well-off people, eating animals caught in pristine environment. Guess it makes sense...but I had no idea.

      oil = greed

      May 11, 2014 at 9:24pm

      Get your head out of the tarsand , petro chemical bigpharma military state of ignorance !!!

      From the Arctic past Nunavik

      May 12, 2014 at 6:50am

      Why is it that when they study the Arctic, they never past the 10 proviances? If they studied past the north of 60*, more people would know the real. The researcher never past the north of 60*, for it is too cood for them and the people living up here are for the most healthest people.