[Note: Marla Cone’s book, Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic, is now available at online stores. It hits regular bookstores in May.]
ON A SHEET OF ICE where the Arctic Ocean meets the North Atlantic in the territorial waters of Greenland, Mamarut Kristiansen kneels beside the carcass of a narwhal, the elusive animal sometimes known as “the unicorn of the sea” for its spiraled ivory tusk. He slices off a piece of mattak, the whale’s raw pink blubber and mottled gray skin, and bites into it. “Peqqinnartoq,” he says in Greenlandic. Healthy food. Nearby, Mamarut’s wife, Tukummeq Peary, a descendant of North Pole explorer Robert Peary, is boiling the main entrée on a camp stove. She, Mamarut, and his brother Gedion dip their hunting knives into the kettle and pull out steaming ribs of ringed seal.
From their home in Qaanaaq, a village in Greenland’s Thule region, the Kristiansens have traveled here, to the edge of the world, by dog sledge. It took six hours to journey the 30 miles across a rugged glacier to this sapphire-hued fjord, where every summer they camp on the precarious ice awaiting their prey. The family lives much as their ancestors did thousands of years ago, relying on the bounty of the sea and skills honed by generations. Their lifestyle isn’t quaint; it is a necessity in this hostile and isolated expanse. Survival here, in the northernmost civilization on earth, means living the way marine mammals live, hunting as they do, wearing their skins. No factory-engineered fleece compares to the warmth of a sealskin parka. No motorboat can sneak up on a whale like a handmade kayak lashed together with strips of hide. And no imported food nourishes the people’s bodies and warms their spirits like the meat they slice from the flanks of a whale or seal.
Traditionally, this marine diet has made the people of the Arctic Circle among the world’s healthiest. Beluga whale, for example, has 10 times the iron of beef, twice the protein, and five times the vitamin A. Omega-3 fatty acids in the seafood protect the indigenous people from heart disease. A 70-year-old Inuit in Greenland has coronary arteries as elastic as those of a 20-year-old Dane eating Western foods, says Dr. Gert Mulvad of the Primary Health Care Clinic in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. Some Arctic clinics do not even keep heart medications like nitroglycerin in stock. Although heart disease has appeared with the introduction of Western foods, it remains “more or less unknown,” Mulvad says.
Yet the ocean diet that gives these people life and defines their culture also threatens them. Despite living amid pristine ice and glacier-carved bedrock, people like Mamarut, Tukummeq, and Gedion are more vulnerable to pollution than anyone else on earth. Mercury concentrations in Qaanaaq mothers are the highest ever recorded, 12 times greater than the level that poses neurological risks to fetuses, according to U.S. government standards. A separate study has linked PCBs with slight effects on the intelligence of children in Qaanaaq. Although most of the village’s people never leave their hunting grounds, the world travels to them, riding upon wintry winds.
THE ARCTIC has been transformed into the planet’s chemical trash can, the final destination for toxic waste that originates thousands of miles away. Atmospheric and oceanic currents conspire to send industrial chemicals, pesticides, and power-plant emissions on a journey to the Far North. Many airborne chemicals tend to migrate to, and precipitate in, cold climates, where they then endure for decades, perhaps centuries, slow to break down in the frigid temperatures and low sunlight. The Arctic Ocean is a deep-freeze archive, holding the memories of the world’s past and present mistakes. Its wildlife, too, are archives, as poisonous chemicals accumulate in the fat that Arctic animals need to survive. Polar bears denning in Norway and Russia near the North Pole carry some of the highest levels of toxic compounds ever found in living animals.
Perched at the top of the Arctic food chain, eating a diet similar to a polar bear’s, the Inuit also play unwilling host to some 200 toxic pesticides and industrial compounds. These include all of the “Dirty Dozen” — the 12 pollutants capable of inflicting the most damage — including PCBs and chlorinated pesticides such as chlordane, toxaphene, and DDT, long banned in most of North America and Europe. Other compounds still in use today — flame retardants in furniture and computers, insecticides, and the chemicals used to make Teflon — are growing in concentration as well.
The first evidence of alarming levels of toxic substances in the bodies of Arctic peoples came from the Canadian Inuit. In 1987, Dr. Eric Dewailly, an epidemiologist at Laval University in Quebec, was surveying contaminants in the breast milk of mothers near the industrialized, heavily polluted Gulf of St. Lawrence, when he met a midwife from Nunavik, the Inuit area of Arctic Quebec. (Across the Hudson Bay, the Inuit also have their own self-governing territory, Nunavut, or “our land.”) She asked whether he wanted milk samples from Nunavik women. Dewailly reluctantly agreed, thinking they might be useful as “blanks,” samples with nondetectable pollution levels.
A few months later, glass vials holding half a cup of milk from each of 24 Nunavik women arrived. Dewailly soon got a phone call from his lab director. Something was wrong with the Arctic milk. The chemical concentrations were off the charts. The peaks overloaded the lab’s equipment, running off the page. The technician thought the samples must have been tainted in transit.
Upon testing more breast milk, however, the scientists realized that the readings were accurate: Arctic mothers had seven times more PCBs in their milk than mothers in Canada’s biggest cities. Informed of the results, an expert in chemical safety at the World Health Organization told Dewailly that the PCB levels were the highest he had ever seen. Those women, he said, should stop breastfeeding their babies.
Dewailly hung up the phone. “Breast milk is supposed to be a gift,” he says. “It isn’t supposed to be a poison.” And in a place as remote as Nunavik, he knew that mothers often had nothing else to feed their infants. Nearly 18 years have passed since Dewailly tested those first vials of breast milk; subsequent data has emerged to show that people, especially babies, are exposed to dangerous concentrations of contaminants all across the Arctic. The average levels of PCBs and mercury in newborn babies’ cord blood and women’s breast milk are a staggering 20 to 50 times higher in Greenland than in urban areas of the United States and Europe, according to a 2002 report from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), a project created by eight governments including the United States. Ninety-five percent of women tested in eastern Greenland, nearly 75 percent of women in Arctic Canada’s Baffin Island, and nearly 60 percent in Nunavik exceed Canada’s “level of concern” for PCBs. Fewer measurements have been taken in Siberia, but the AMAP says contamination levels are high there as well.
In addition to their potential to cause cancer, many of the compounds found in Arctic inhabitants are capable of altering sex hormones and reproductive systems, suppressing immune systems, and obstructing brain development. Infants are the most vulnerable — subject to exposure both in utero and through breast milk, because contaminants such as PCB and DDT accumulate in the fatty nourishment — and are harmed in subtle but profound ways. Arctic babies with high PCB and DDT exposure suffer greater rates of infectious diseases. A study of such infants in Nunavik found that they have more ear and respiratory infections, a quarter of them severe enough to cause hearing loss. “Nunavik has a cluster of sick babies,” says Dewailly. “They fill the waiting rooms of the clinics.”
A 2003 study found that, compared to infants in lower Quebec, Nunavik infants had much higher exposure to PCBs, mercury, and lead, which resulted in lower birth weight, impaired memory skills, and difficulty in processing new information.
Excessive levels of contamination are not limited to the Arctic. People throughout the world, especially those in seafood-eating cultures, are at similar risk. In the United States, one of every six babies — about 698,000 a year — is born to a mother carrying more mercury in her body than is considered safe under federal guidelines.
The difference is that Americans and Europeans can make choices in their diets to limit their exposure, avoiding fish such as swordfish that are high on the food chain or from highly contaminated waters. For the 650,000 native people of the circumpolar North — the Inuit of Greenland and Canada, the Aleuts, Yup’ik, and Inupiat of Alaska, the Chukchi and other tribes of Siberia, the Saami of Scandinavia and western Russia — there is no real choice. Spread over three continents and speaking dozens of languages, almost all of them face the same dilemma: whether to eat traditional food and face the health risk — or abandon their food, and with it their culture.
“Our foods do more than nourish our bodies,” Inuit rights activist Ingmar Egede said. “When many things in our lives are changing, our foods remain the same. They make us feel the same as they have for generations. When I eat Inuit foods, I know who I am.”
KNOWN TO NAVIGATORS as the North Water, the ocean off Qaanaaq is a polynya, a spot that remains thawed year-round in an otherwise frozen sea. An upwelling of nutrients draws an array of marine life, and the Kristiansens and the other people of Qaanaaq, an isolated village of 860 on the slope of a granite mountain, come here to hunt seal, beluga, walrus, narwhal, even polar bear. A century ago, the famous Arctic explorers — Peary, Frederick Cook, Knud Rasmussen — learned on their expeditions through the area that eating Inuit food was key to survival.
Greenland has no trees, no grass, no fertile soil, which means no cows, no pigs, no chickens, no grains, no vegetables, no fruit. In fact, there is little need for the word “green” in Greenland. The ocean is its food basket. In the remote villages, people eat marine mammals and seabirds 36 times per month on average, consuming about a pound of seal and whale each week. One-third of their food is the meat of wild animals. The International Whaling Commission has deemed the Inuit “the most hunting-oriented of all humans.” Greenland is an independently governed territory of Denmark, but 85 percent — or 48,000 — of its people are Inuit, and hunting is essential to everything in their 4,000-year-old culture: their language, their art, their clothing, their legends, their celebrations, their community ties, their economy, their spirituality.
Today, the Kristiansens are gathered on the edge of the ice, waiting to spot a whale’s breath. “If only we could see one, we’d be happy,” Mamarut whispers, lifting binoculars and eyeing the mirrorlike water for the pale gray back of qilalugaq, or narwhal. “Sometimes they arrive at a certain hour of the day and then the next day, same hour, they come back.”
Once, Gedion and Mamarut waited almost a month on the ice before catching a narwhal. During such vigils, hunters must remain alert for cracks or other signs that the ice beneath them is shifting. In an instant, it can break off and carry them out to sea. To Greenlanders, ice is everything — it’s danger, it’s the source of dinner, it’s the water they drink. Their language has several dozen expressions for ice, only one for tree.
Mamarut is big, bawdy, and beefy, the elder brother and joker of the family. He celebrated his 42nd birthday on this hunting trip. Gedion is 10 years younger, lanky, quiet, the expert kayaker, wearing a National Geographic cap. The Kristiansen brothers are among the best hunters in a nation of hunters, able to sustain their families without the help of other jobs for their wives or themselves. In a good year, they can eat their fill of whale meat and earn more than $15,000 a year selling the rest to markets. In winter, they sell sealskins to a Greenlandic company marketing them in Europe. The men’s hair is black, thick and straight, cut short. Their skin is darkened by the sun, but they have no wrinkles. Their only shelter on the ice is a canvas tarp attached to their dog sledge, a make-shift tent so cramped that one person can’t bend a knee or straighten an elbow without disturbing the others. A noxious oil-burning lamp is their only source of heat; the kitchen is a camp stove, used to melt ice for tea and to boil seal meat.
Hunting narwhal is a dangerous endeavor. When Gedion hears or sees them coming, he quietly climbs into his kayak with his harpoon and sealskin buoy. He must simultaneously judge the ice conditions, the current, the wind, the speed and direction of the whales. If a kayaker makes the slightest noise, a narwhal will hear it. If he throws the harpoon, the whale must be directly in front of his kayak, about 30 feet away, close but not too close — or the animal’s powerful dive will submerge him and he will likely drown. Gedion, like most Greenlanders, can’t swim. There’s not much need to master swimming when one can’t survive more than a few moments in the frigid water.
Pollution isn’t the first force to disrupt local Inuit culture. A little more than a century ago, the people of Qaanaaq didn’t have a written language and had scant contact with the Western world. In the 1950s, during the Cold War, their entire community was moved 70 miles to the north to make way for an American military base. The U.S. and Danish governments built the villagers contemporary prefabricated houses — small red, green, blue, and purple chalets. Qaanaaq’s population has since doubled, with people attracted by the good hunting. The move also brought liquor, television, and other distractions of modern life. Alcoholism, violence, domestic abuse, and suicide now exact a heavy toll.
Today, the people of Qaanaaq can smear imported taco sauce on their seal meat, buy dental floss and Danish porn magazines in the small local market, and watch Nightmare on Elm Street and Altered States in their living rooms on the one TV station that beams into Qaanaaq. When asked how he catches a whale, Gedion jokes that he uses a lasso like American cowboys he’s seen on television.
Whatever is not hunted — from tea to bread to cheese — is imported from Denmark. Imported food is expensive, often stale, and not very tasty or nutritious. The average family income is $24,000 in Greenland’s capital Nuuk, $13,000 in Qaanaaq, and though food is government subsidized, the price of staples like milk, bread, and beef is still considerably higher than in the United States.
And so Greenland’s public health officials are torn between encouraging the Inuit to keep eating their traditional foods and advising them to reduce their consumption. In part, doctors fear the Inuit will switch to processed foods loaded with carbohydrates and sugar. “The level of contamination is very high in Greenland, but there’s a lot of Western food that is worse than the poisons,” Dr. Mulvad says. Greenland’s Home Rule government has issued no advisories, and doctors continue to tell people, even pregnant women, to eat traditional food and nurse their babies without restrictions. Jonathan Motzfeldt, who was Greenland’s premier for almost 20 years and is now speaker of the Parliament, says hunting isn’t sport for his people; it’s survival, and the government will not discourage it. “We eat seal meat as you eat cow in your country,” Motzfeldt says. “It’s important for Greenlanders to have meat on the table. You don’t see many vegetables in Greenland. We integrate imported foods, but hunting and eating seals as well as whales is essential for us to survive as a people.”
ACROSS THE BAFFIN BAY, surveys show most Canadian Inuit have not altered their diet either. This is partly the result of a clash of cultures. Inuktitut, the language of Canadian Inuit, has some 50 expressions for snow and ice. Qanniq is falling snow. Maujaq is deep, soft snow. Kinirtaq is wet, compact snow. Katakartanaq is crusty snow marked by footsteps. Uangniut is a snowdrift made by a northwest wind. Munnguqtuq is compressed snow softening in spring. Yet there is no Inuktitut word for “chemical” or “pollution” or “contaminant.” Over the millennia that their culture has existed, the Inuit have had no need for such words. Most have never seen soot spew from a factory smokestack, or smelled the stench of truck exhaust, or waded in an oily river. So Canadian health officials have dubbed the toxic chemicals found in native foods sukkunartuq — something that destroys or brings about something bad. But use of the word has made the contaminants seem lethal and mysterious, even supernatural, and that — combined with a history of government secrecy and poor communication about health risks — has left the Inuit confused, scared, and sometimes angry.
In 1985, Canadian health officials, concerned that an Arctic radar warning system might be a source of PCBs, decided to study the people of Broughton Island, a tiny hamlet in the Baffin Bay region. Government researchers, led by Dr. David Kinloch, collected blood samples and breast milk. The PCB levels were so high — much higher than what could have come from local military facilities — that the mayor of Broughton Island granted Kinloch permission to test more women. Completed in the summer of 1988, the research confirmed high concentrations of PCBs in breast milk at about the same time that Quebec’s Dewailly was finding extraordinary levels of DDT, PCBs, and other toxic chemicals in the women of Nunavik. Before any of this data could be fully analyzed, and before people were notified, the discovery was leaked to the press.
On December 15, 1988, Toronto’s Globe and Mail published a front-page story, quoting a Canadian environmental official saying that the Inuit were so contaminated that they might have to give up whale, seal, and walrus. The Inuit were terrified; some stopped eating their native foods, or breastfeeding. Overnight, Arctic contaminants became a crisis for the Canadian government. Health Canada, the nation’s public health agency, was paralyzed with indecision. The Nunavik and Baffin data clearly showed that most Inuit were exceeding the agency’s “tolerable daily intake levels” for toxic contaminants. If the agency was to adhere to its own policies, it would have to warn the Inuit to stop eating their traditional foods. But public health officials had never encountered a problem like this before, where the contaminated foods were so vital to a society’s health, culture, and economy. On the one hand, it seemed irresponsible to advise people not to nurse their babies and eat their foods when the traditional diet had so many health benefits and alternatives were unavailable. On the other hand, if the government ignored its own toxic guidelines when it came to the Inuit, wouldn’t that be discriminatory?
Crisis meetings were held in Ottawa; aboriginal leaders begged to be included, but none were allowed to participate. It wasn’t until the spring of 1989, more than a year later, that the Broughton Islanders who’d given their blood and breast milk to scientists were allowed to see the results of their own tests. It was a slap in the face that Canada’s indigenous people have not forgotten.
A wide chasm has since grown between what scientists say and what native people hear, and health officials have failed to refine their message to resonate with the traditional cultures of the Arctic. As a result, at least three generations of Inuit have had little or no advice from experts on how to reduce their exposure. In the late 1990s, 42 percent of women questioned in Nunavik said they increased their consumption of traditional foods while pregnant. Of the 12 percent who ate less, only 1 of 135 said she did so to avoid contaminants. Among those who ate more native foods during pregnancy, most said they did so because they believed it would be good for their baby.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an organization that represents the Canadian Inuit, launched a project in the mid-1990s to gauge the success of authorities’ efforts to inform nine Arctic communities about contaminants. The researchers found the communication so poorly handled that it caused extreme psychological distress among the Inuit. Fear, they concluded, is as dangerous a threat as the contaminants themselves.
“In every instance, there was a pervasive unease and anxiety about contaminants,” the organization wrote in its 1995 report. “Whether or not individuals are exposed to contaminants, the threat alone leads to anxiety, loss of familiar and staple food, loss of employment or activity, loss of confidence in the basic food source and the environment, and more generally a loss of control over one’s destiny and well-being.”
Lately, health officials have been doing a better job at informing the Inuit of new data. And in 2003, the Nunavik Nutrition and Health Committee, based in Kuujjuaq and composed of Inuit leaders as well as Quebec medical experts, finally took a different tack, focusing on telling people what they should eat rather than what they should not eat. Women were advised to eat Arctic char, a tasty, popular fish that has low levels of contaminants and high amounts of beneficial fatty acids; a pilot program distributed free char to three communities. The hope is that if the Inuit eat more char they will eat less beluga, the source of two-thirds of the PCBs in Nunavik residents.
THE KRISTIANSENS, like their fellow residents of Qaanaaq, learned about the contaminants from listening to the radio. But like most Greenlandic Inuit, they have not changed their diet. Virtually every day, they eat seal meat and mattak, and with every bite, traces of mercury, PCBs, and other chemicals amass in their bodies. “We can’t avoid them,” Gedion says with a shrug. “It’s our food.”
This hunting trip proves to be a short one, only five days, and they reap little reward for their patience. “Sometimes you have to just go back empty-handed and feed your dogs,” Mamarut says. Upon returning to their village, hunters share their experiences so that everyone may benefit from them. The Kristiansen brothers learned to hunt narwhal from their father, who, in turn, learned from his relatives. Gedion’s seven-year-old son, Rasmus, often comes along on their hunts, pretending to drive the dogs and harpoon narwhals. Soon enough, he will be paddling a kayak beside his father. Since 2500 B.C., when the forebears of the Inuit arrived in Greenland, this legacy has been passed on to generations of boys by generations of men like Gedion and Mamarut. Their ancestors’ memories, as vivid as a dream, as ancient as the sea ice, mingle with their own.
“Qaatuppunga piniartarlunga,” Mamarut says. As far back as I can remember, I hunted.