Dietary Markers and Contaminant Exposures Are Correlated to Wild Food Consumption in Two Northern Ontario First Nations Communities

Title: Dietary Markers and Contaminant Exposures Are Correlated to Wild Food Consumption in Two Northern Ontario First Nations Communities
Authors: Seabert, Timothy A.
Date: 2012
Abstract: First Nations peoples experience many benefits from eating locally-harvested wild foods, but these benefits must be considered along with the potential risks associated with exposure to environmental contaminants. Unlike store-bought foods, wild foods are an important traditional resource and a significant source of dietary protein, essential minerals and polyunsaturated fatty acids, believed to help in the prevention and treatment of obesity and obesity-related diseases such as type-2 diabetes mellitus. Wild foods continue to be an important and healthy food choice for First Nations peoples; however, they are also a primary source of dietary mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs). To assess the effects of wild food consumption on dietary markers and contaminant accumulation, we grouped individuals from two remote Oji-Cree First Nations communities of north-western Ontario (n=71) according to their level of wild food consumption. In this study, I observed significantly higher organic contaminants in blood and higher mercury concentrations in hair for individuals consuming greater amounts of wild food. Age-adjusted contaminant concentrations were on average 3.5-times higher among high-frequency wild food consumers, with many exceeding federal and international health guidelines for mercury and PCB exposures. Contaminants in these populations approach, and in some cases exceed, threshold levels for adverse effects with potential consequences especially for prenatal development. Here, I also investigated the potential for stable isotope ratios of carbon and nitrogen (δ13C and δ15N) to serve as dietary markers and found strong positive correlations between stable isotopes and frequency of wild food and fish consumption. Frequency of fish consumption and δ15N was also shown to be positively correlated with mercury concentrations in hair and PCB concentrations in plasma. The results of this thesis demonstrate that known differences in dietary behaviour are clearly reflected in stable isotope ratios and contaminant concentrations. The data also show that contaminant exposures to those consuming wild foods in remote Boreal ecosystems is comparable to those associated with serious health effects in industrialized areas, and the problem of contaminants in wild foods is more widespread than the available literature would have led us to believe. These results affect our appreciation of contaminant exposures to First Nations peoples and will have implications for dietary choices, particularly if individuals are encouraged to consume greater amounts of wild foods for their proposed health benefits. We recommend further attention be given to the risks of contaminants in locally-harvested wild foods when promoting the benefits of their consumption to First Nations people as the problem of contaminants in remote communities practicing traditional lifestyles is often underreported and underplayed.
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