The dark season had ended, and a fierce Arctic wind was howling across the icy sea as Lucy Qavavauq finished a supper of caribou soup. After dishes were put away at her friend's home, she sat down to nurse her firstborn child. As the baby fed, the mother wondered whether her 9-month-old boy was drinking poison -- contaminants found in tests of Inuit who eat caribou and other Arctic animals.
"The idea scares me. The more I think about it, the more scared I get," Qavavauq said. Her baby pulled at her breast and grinned; milk slid down his fat cheek. "I know there is a possibility of passing on contaminants to him. But then I still know breast-feeding is best. I can't imagine not breast-feeding my baby."
It is a dilemma confronted by many Inuit mothers. Scientists say the Arctic, once considered pristine and unspoiled, has become a sinkhole for pollutants. The contaminants -- including heavy metals, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, DDT and other pesticides -- come north by air and water.
"Northerners suffer the public health and environmental consequences of trans-boundary contaminants brought to the Arctic by winds and currents from tropical and temperate countries," said Terry Fenge, strategic counsel for the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an advocacy group that represents Inuit in Greenland, Canada, Russia and Alaska. He said that many toxins enter the food chain and accumulate in human tissue. "They have a high lipid solubility, which means they concentrate in the fatty tissue of animals, particularly those in the marine environment."
"On a human level, we are being poisoned from afar," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chairman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference.
Canadian government studies have found that many Inuit have dangerously high levels of PCBs, DDT and mercury in their blood, fatty tissue and breast milk. A 1997 government study found that 65 percent of women in the Baffin region of Nunavut had levels of PCBs in their blood that were five times higher than the safety threshold set by the Canadian Health Ministry. The study found that women in Broughton Island off the southeastern shore of Baffin Island had more than five times the levels of PCBs in their breast milk than women in other parts of Canada.
The report found that 80 percent of mothers in Nunavik, in northern Quebec, and 68 percent of mothers in Baffin had unsafe levels of mercury in their blood.
"The northern women had the highest levels of PCBs ever found in people, except in victims of industrial accidents," according to a report by Heather Myers, an assistant professor at the University of Northern British Columbia. "The fundamental injustice is that virtually no industrial development exists in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. These new environmental threats, which could completely undercut the traditional and land-based lifestyle of the northern native peoples, come from other, more developed areas," the report said.
Persistent pollutants are among a number of serious threats to the Inuit, the indigenous people who have lived, hunted and fished in this region for thousands of years. Inuit leaders say climate change, the accelerated melting of sea ice and the possibility of the famed icy Northwest Passage opening to year-round shipping also threaten their people. The Inuit, whose ancestors roamed Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia, plan to petition the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to declare that the pollutants, climate change and the residue from military installations are violating their human rights.
"The Inuit are facing the beginning of a possible end of a way of life that has allowed us to thrive for millennia because of climate changes caused by global warming," Watt-Cloutier said. "It is predicted that in some 50 years, polar bears, walrus and some species of seals will be pushed to extinction. What will be left of our culture if this comes to pass?"
There is also concern that the Inuit are threatened by contamination at the now-abandoned U.S. military DEW line, or Distant Early Warning line, a series of 21 radar sites built in the 1950s along the 70th parallel to detect enemy planes and missiles. Reports assert the stations are contaminated with PCBs.
"In Alaska, the beaches are slumping so much, people are having to move houses. In Tuktoyaktuk, the land is starting to go under water. The glaciers are melting and the permafrost is melting. There are new species of birds and fish and insects showing up," Watt-Cloutier said. "The Arctic is a barometer for the health of the world. If you want to know how healthy the world is, come to the Arctic and feel its pulse."
On May 17, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants will become legally binding, requiring more than 150 participating governments, including those of Canada and the United States, to stop the production and use of toxic chemicals such as DDT and PCBs, which have long been cited for their persistence and adverse impact on human and animal health.
Despite the elevated toxin levels detected in traditional foods, Inuit leaders have not encouraged people to stop eating them.
Long-term studies in the United States, Canada and Europe have found neurological damage in young children with high levels of PCBs. Scientists report increases in respiratory and ear infections in regions where contaminant levels in mothers' milk are considered dangerously high.
Yet recent studies have found that Inuit who eat less traditional foods have higher rates of diabetes and cardiovascular problems.
"We don't say to mothers, be alarmed," Watt-Cloutier said. "The message is, the benefits of eating country foods outweigh the risks. Mothers are told to eat more char [fish] and caribou while pregnant and nursing. . . . But this is not even just about food, but also about a way of life. We are not ready to give up."
Madeleine Allakariallak, 28, a mother of three, is also concerned about contaminants in traditional foods, but she says she will not stop consuming the foods she grew up on. "It's scary to have contaminants in the food we as Inuit eat," Allakariallak said. "We don't know [what] the long-term effects of contaminants will do to our children."
She and Qavavauq talked about their concerns in Allakariallak's modern townhouse here. Down the hill, the faint lights of snowmobiles carrying hunters were flickering over the ice. Nunavut, with a population of more than 30,000, became Canada's third territory on April 1, 1999, after the Inuit settled a land claim with the Canadian government giving them title to land more than twice the size of Sweden.
Allakariallak grew up in Resolute Bay, a settlement in the Northwest Territories. The Canadian government moved Inuit to the area from northern Quebec to establish sovereignty over the Arctic. The land was bleak and many Inuit died in Resolute. "My grandmother was one of the exiles relocated," said Allakariallak, who hosts a CBC morning radio show in English and Inuktitut.
Lucy Qavavauq said she knows there are toxins in the traditional food of the Inuit, but she says the food hunted here is better than the expensive, processed food flown in and sold down the icy road at the North Mart.
"I love to eat frozen or raw seal. But I wonder, am I boiling it enough for my son? His immune system is not as strong as mine. If my parents lived here, they wouldn't think twice about giving him frozen or raw meat because that's what we do." Qavavauq says she eats whale meat and ptarmigan, a kind of grouse. "Seal liver is my favorite, freshly caught. But I don't know what chemicals in my country foods are going in me and what are getting into my baby."
Qavavauq, who grew up in Arctic Bay, said occasionally a seal would wash up on shore, dead from causes the Inuit did not understand. "Where I lived there was a mine close by and seals suddenly would die. How does that affect the country food and our bodies? I don't know the land very well, but I always wondered how it would affect my son."