The Results are in: Some Wildlife Parts are Harmful to Eat, Others Inconclusive

Posted by: Mikisew Communications 6 months, 3 weeks ago


Dr. Steph McLachlan presenting his findings to community members

At Dr. Steph McLachlan's presentation in Fort Chipewyan he described the results of an environmental study he conducted from Summer 2011 to Fall 2012. His focus was on the health and possible contamination of wildlife that the people of Fort Chipewyan and surrounding communities eat daily. The study examined three types of wildlife: moose, muskrat and ducks; each species was examined by a vet and three tissues were sent to independent labs for testing. The tissue were liver, kidney and muscle and each tissue was tested for heavy metal and PAH contaminants.

Summary of results from heavy metal contaminate testing

Muscle (meat, no fat) Safe
Kidneys, Liver Unsafe for children and pregnant or nursing women.

PAH Testing

PAH means polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon. This key word is hydrocarbon, these pollutants come from hydrocarbon industries like oil and gas. Although Dr. McLachlan's studies show there is no detectable PAH contaminates in these animals, this can be attributed to a few design problems in the study. Some glaring issues were pointed out by community members.

Cookie Simpson explained that the animals collected were collected from the freezers of local hunters and trappers. Dr. McLachlan tells the community that he considers traditional knowledge to be better at indicating animal health than western science. The problem is the people with the greatest amount of traditional knowledge are the ones collecting healthy samples. The hunters know what animals are sick and they don't take them home to their freezers. No sick animals were collected for this study, and they have based an entire study on the healthiest animals. Dr. McLachlan replies, "These were all in people's deep freezes and people were going to eat them.  In a sense that works both ways: it really says more about the kinds of animals that people will eat, but it doesn't say much about what's happening in the environment."

"We really sampled the wrong tissues — it's not really surprising that we didn't find anything"

Arsen Bernallie was not convinced that studying ducks would accurately represent what was happening locally, since the ducks are a migratory bird. "The ducks could have come from as far north as the Arctic or as far south as Texas". He also mentioned that muskrats don't live in polluted water, another reason why only healthy animals are showing up in the study.  Dr. McLachlan speaks to the muskrat issue saying, "The muskrat only occur in unpolluted waters. This is what people are telling us again and again. Even though we will continue collecting muskrat we will shift to beavers... if there is an effect by say, the oilsands; we will expect to see that in the beavers when we sample them."

The third and perhaps most damaging point about the study is the fact that no fatty tissues were sampled. PAH's do not dissolve in water, and like oil they float. PAH's enter the food chain through the fatty tissues of animals and the concentrations multiply as the fat is ingested by another animal or human. In a human, the first place of contact for the PAH's is the gall bladder and small intestine, followed by other soft tissues and ending up in fatty tissues throughout the body. Dr. McLachlan explains that collecting the gall bladders or bile ducts of animal for sampling is difficult and requires someone trained locally, and his solution for Phase Two is to send whole ducks off to get their bile ducks extracted by a trained individual. He expressed a desire to move away from PAH testing altogether because it was four times more expensive than testing for heavy metals. This is not as solution, Dr. McLachlan admits ducks are not accurate in determining local contamination. This study did not find any PAH contamination because it was looking at the wrong tissues.

Probably the most interesting thing Dr McLachlan said about the PAH testing was, "The problem is that when you sample this bile (the bile duct) is that is difficult to do out here.  What you need is scientists trained or community members trained, or what we do is ship the whole animal to the ALS. The PAH's — from a western science perspective, because we really sampled the wrong tissues — it's not really surprising that we didn't find anything."

Summary of results from PAH contaminate testing

Fats Inconclusive

Where do we go from here?

There is a dilemma. Animals don't have rights like people do. If we stop eating off the land then it doesn't matter how much it is polluted because no humans are being harmed. If we eat off the land (a way of life protected by the treaties), we are exposed to harmful chemicals from industry and development. To people that hold a great deal of traditional knowledge the source of the problem is clear and obvious, but for the rest of the world to take notice the link has to be proven without a doubt using scientific method. The researchers that conduct these experiments are outsiders with their own interests and motivation, but in the end this is our community and our study. We have control. We can push for proper experiment design that tests the proper tissues, and we can get community members trained to collect sick animals and extract these environmentally significant tissues.  We can push to study animals that are higher on the food chian (predators like jackfish or bear),  where PAH contaminates are highest and the most dangerous to people of Fort Chipewyan and surrounding communities.

Dr. McLachlan wants traditional knowledge to be a big part of the study, but from the perspective of the participants traditional knowledge was used to collect healthy animals. The ideal marriage of traditional knowledge and western science would put the knowledge holders on the land to collect the problem animals. Then western science (practised by trained locals) could be used to extract the proper tissues and get a better idea of the level of contamination of our waters, wilderness, wildlife, and food supply.

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