“Yet another environmental injustice in the Arctic”: troubling increase in certain types of organic pollutants in pregnant women in Nunavik

Press release from Université Laval

Québec City, October 21, 2020 – A study recently published in the journal Environment International revealed a troubling increase in certain types of organic pollutants in pregnant women in Nunavik. Researchers from Université Laval, University of Toronto, and organizations in Nunavik reported that exposure to these chemical compounds made in the South, called perfluoroalkyl acid (PFAA), is twice as high in these women as in a representative sample of Canadian women of the same age group. “It’s yet another environmental injustice in the Arctic,” commented the study’s lead author, Mélanie Lemire, professor at Université Laval’s Faculty of Medicine and researcher at the CHU de Québec-Université Laval Research Centre.

PFAAs are chemical compounds used in the manufacture of a wide range of products such as water- and stain-repellent treatments, nonstick coatings, food packaging, paint, cosmetics, and cleaning products. The compounds are associated with changes in hormonal, kidney, cardiometabolic, and immune function.

PFAAs do not biodegrade easily. They persist in the environment and can be transported over long distances in the atmosphere and the oceans. This is how they wind up in the Arctic food chain, where they accumulate in the tissues of living organisms in increasing concentrations moving up the food chain. Even though PFAAs are regulated in North America and internationally, some PFAAs are still found in consumer goods imported into the country. Other similar compounds, such as FTOHs, are still in use and eventually degrade into PFAAs.

The team of researchers measured changes in blood PFAA levels in 279 Inuit women who had pregnancies between 2004 and 2017. The team’s analyses showed a drop in concentrations of regulated PFAAs but found that long-chain PFAAs, most likely derived from the degradation of FTOHs, had increased in some cases by over 20%.

The analyses also showed that in 2016–2017, PFAA concentrations in pregnant Inuit women were twice as high as those in a representative sample of Canadian women of the same age group. Cross-referencing of data on diet showed a link between PFAA concentrations in the blood and consumption of traditional foods.

“Traditional foods provide nutritional and cultural benefits crucial to ensuring a good pregnancy and a healthy newborn,” explained Professor Lemire. “We will continue working with our colleagues in the Arctic in urging Canadian and international authorities to tighten regulations governing PFAAs and FTOHs so that the Inuit can safely consume traditional foods.”

The study published in Environmental International is coauthored by Élyse Caron-Beaudoin (University of Toronto), Pierre Ayotte, Caty Blanchette, Gina Muckle, and Mélanie Lemire (Université Laval), Ellen Avard (Nunavik Research Centre, Makivik Corporation), and Sylvie Ricard (Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services).

Jean-François Huppé
Media relations
Université Laval

Date of publication: 21 Oct 2020

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