Contaminants researcher says caribou meat safe for now
"Thank you to all hunters because all of this data is from hunters"
If you enjoy eating caribou meat, a visiting researcher has some good news for you: testing shows caribou meat contains low amounts of harmful contaminants.
Mary Gamberg, a scientist in Whitehorse, Yukon, gave a public lecture before about 20 people at the Nunavut Research Institute in Iqaluit Oct. 2 entitled, “Contaminants in Caribou.”
“The good news is that contaminants in Arctic caribou are super low,” said Gamberg, who works for the federal government’s Northern Contaminants Program.
The Northern Contaminants Program, set up in 1991, monitors and eliminates “wherever possible” contaminants found in traditionally harvested foods.
Most contaminants found in marine mammals are not found within caribou, Gamberg said.
But there are three contaminants found in low levels in caribou, which Gamberg discussed in turn: mercury, cadmium and cesium-137.
Mercury, produced by coal-fired power plants, small scale gold production and as a byproduct from a number of industrialized processes, travels to the Arctic through the atmosphere and via ocean currents, Gamberg said. It can also be released naturally by volcanoes and forest fires.
Caribou ingest mercury by eating lichen, which absorb their nutrients from the atmosphere.
Mercury contamination in country food has been linked to neuro-developmental problems, Gamberg said, especially in fetuses and young children.
And while health advisories limit consumption of caribou livers (12 per year) and kidneys (24 per year), there is no limit on caribou meat, because mercury levels are too low, Gamberg said.
Cadmium, found in batteries, certain pigments, plastics and cigarettes, can cause kidney damage and cancer, Gamberg said.
But levels found in Arctic caribou that consume the contaminant, like mercury, through eating lichen, are too low to be a concern.
Cesium-137 is a radioactive isotope produced as a byproduct from nuclear fission, released into the atmosphere from nuclear weapons testing or accidents at nuclear power plants, Gamberg said.
Studies showed that the Porcupine caribou herd in the western Arctic showed higher cesium-137 levels after nuclear weapon testing in the 1960s and after the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, but not after the Fukushima power plant meltdown in 2011, Gamberg said.
Even though contaminant levels are low, Gamberg said it’s important to monitor them because if global emissions, especially of mercury, continue at current levels or increase, “there will eventually be a problem, the caribou will have a problem, and us eating the caribou will have a problem.”
Gamberg said that southeast Asia currently emits almost 40 per cent of the world’s atmospheric mercury and some studies predict that will increase.
Mercury in the atmosphere originating in southeast Asia crosses the Pacific Ocean and ends up in the western Arctic, “in a matter of days,” Gamberg said.
The eastern Arctic, which currently has higher mercury deposition levels than the western Arctic, receives its atmospheric mercury from western Europe, Gamberg said.
Researchers have been studying the safety of country foods for years to ensure Inuit aren’t getting ill from the animals they harvest.
Melissa McKinney of the University of Windsor, just received funding to study how toxic chemicals might be accumulating in northern marine mammals as a result of climate change luring southern fish — which generally contain higher levels of contaminants — to more northern destinations.
Researchers at the University of Guelph have also been studying how caribou can metabolize some pesticides ingested from the plants they eat and thereby limit the negative impact of those chemicals.
At the end of her lecture, Gamberg thanked hunters from around the North for contributing to her research.
“I just have to say a general thank you to all hunters because all of this data is from hunters. I’ve had a lot, a lot of hunters come help with the program over the years.”