What research and data are available on environmental contaminants for your community?

What research and data are available on environmental contaminants for your community?

Associated with Priority 8

Context – what are environmental contaminants?

Environmental contaminants are substances that negatively impact the air, water, soil or food. Most often, environmental contaminants are the result of human activities and can cause great harm to human health and to that of wildlife and plants in the ecosystem.

Environmental contaminants can include:

  • Oil and other chemicals
  • Air pollutants such as particulate matter, radon, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and lead
  • Pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers
  • Heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, cadmium and chromium
  • Microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi which occur naturally in the environment

Research has demonstrated a link between exposure and cancer for a number of environmental contaminants.1,2

For example, it has been estimated that the environmental burden of cancer in Ontario is between 3.5% and 6% of all cancer deaths, a rate which is comparable to the burden associated with alcohol and commercial tobacco use.3

Why is this indicator important to First Nations, Inuit and Métis?

Despite the many differences amongst First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples, a deep and abiding connection to the land and an understanding of the interconnections between all beings in Creation have been central to the way of life. This strong, connection to the land and the environment shapes identity, culture and spirituality and is critical to wellbeing and sustenance.4,5,6

Environmental contaminants can have serious impacts on the environment and human health and can threaten food systems, knowledge systems and ways of life.

Many people who live in northern Canada, including First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, are concerned about exposure to elevated levels of contaminants in the environment and in fish and wildlife species which are important to traditional diets.7

In the Arctic, for example, contaminants found include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chemical pesticides, organochlorines and heavy metals (e.g. mercury).8

Some Métis citizens in Saskatchewan have also raised environmental concerns linked to human health, such as the poor quality of the water and mercury in the fish and water.9

There are many examples to be found in all parts of Canada affecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis people living in rural areas and those who live in close proximity to urban industrialized communities.

How does this affect care and outcomes?

Over the course of millennia, First Nations, Inuit and Métis people have lived in harmony and respectful relationship with the environment. Their enduring connection to the land, water and Creation have shaped identity, language, worldview and livelihoods.

Thus, First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples are uniquely sensitive to the impacts and risks associated with the effects of environmental contaminants “due to their close connection to the land for culture, identity, food, traditional harvesting and lifestyle activities.”10

Indigenous-led research and data on environmental contaminants can help identify the sources, levels, and effects of carcinogens in the environment and aid in preventing and reducing cancer burden and deaths. Exploring the impacts on broader social determinants of health in the First Nations, Inuit and Métis contexts is equally important.

For example, the First Nations Environmental Contaminants Program (FNECP) helps First Nations communities improve their health and assess the impact of exposure to environmental hazards.6 Ittaq Inuit Heritage and Research Centre11 conducts environmental research and monitoring. In a similar vein, various Métis groups exercise leadership in finding solutions to these and other environmental concerns.12,13

Though risk assessment related to environmental contaminants has mainly focused on analysis of biological, chemical and physical data to explore impacts on physical health, it is equally important to recognize how wholistic health (including mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health) is undermined when the environment is contaminated.

Movement away from traditional diets and medicines towards store-bought foods and pharmaceuticals; less participation in physically active, traditional lifestyles such as hunting, fishing, trapping, and enjoying being out on the land and water; fewer opportunities for transmission of traditional ecological knowledge between Elders and youth; and fewer people going to the land for their ceremonies and spiritual healing are some of the ways wholistic wellbeing is affected.14,15

This diminished capacity to engage with the land in health-sustaining ways affects not only individuals but extended families, communities and Nations.

Towards health equity

The burden of cancer attributed to environmental exposures to carcinogens has been shown to be higher for certain populations, such as First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples, low-income groups and rural residents.3 They may face increased exposure or be otherwise more susceptible to environmental contaminants.6

Indigenous-led research and data on environmental contaminants is needed to help address these health inequities and to understand the social determinants associated with cancer risk and outcomes.16

A health equity lens means that First Nations, Inuit and Métis people and communities have access to contaminant data and that they have the capacity to engage with this data from their own worldviews.15

What this would mean for people in Canada

Indigenous-led research and data on environmental contaminants can provide the necessary evidence to understand and inform efforts that mitigate cancer risks. Such research should be reflective of jurisdictional needs and priorities.

In order to ensure that First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples can meaningfully contribute to policy, decision making, and design of effective interventions to monitor, address and mitigate the impact of environmental contaminants, they must have access to the best available data and they must lead research based on self-determined priorities.

  1. Paolo Boffetta, Human cancer from environmental pollutants: The epidemiological evidence, Mutation Research/Genetic Toxicology and Environmental Mutagenesis, Volume 608, Issue 2, 2006, Pages 157-162, ISSN 1383-5718, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mrgentox.2006.02.015.
  2. Parsa N. Environmental factors inducing human cancers. Iran J Public Health. 2012;41(11):1-9. Epub 2012 Nov 1. PMID: 23304670; PMCID: PMC3521879.
  3. Greco, S.L., MacIntyre, E., Young, S. et al. An approach to estimating the environmental burden of cancer from known and probable carcinogens: application to Ontario, Canada. BMC Public Health 20, 1017 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-020-08771-w
  4. Metis Climate Change & Health Vulnerability Assessment, Page 4 https://www.metisnation.ca/uploads/documents/MNCHVA%20FINAL%20Report.pdf
  5. National Inuit Climate Change Strategy, Page 10 https://www.itk.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/ITK_Climate-Change-Strategy_English.pdf
  6. First Nations Environmental Contaminants Program for communities and organizations south of 60th parallel https://sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1654111962122/1654111988366
  7. Contaminants in Canada’s North: State of Knowledge and Regional Highlights, Page 5 https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2018/aanc-inac/R74-2-5-2017-eng.pdf
  8. Cancer in Nunavut 1999-2011, Population Health Information Department of Health Government of Nunavut P.O. Box 1000, Station 1033 Iqaluit, NU X0A 0H0 population.health.info@gov.nu.ca Fall, 2014
  9. Experiences and Outcomes of Cancer and Health Care Among Métis Citizens in Saskatchewan, Summary Report, Spring 2021, MN-S Ministry of Health
  10. First Nations’ Portal on Environmental Contaminants and Health https://fnecp-plcepn.ca/
  11. Ittaq Heritage & Research Centre https://ittaq.ca/research/
  12. Metis Climate Change & Health Vulnerability Assessment, Page 5 https://www.metisnation.ca/uploads/documents/MNCHVA%20FINAL%20Report.pdf
  13. Métis National Council 2022-23 Annual Report, Page 18 https://www.metisnation.ca/uploads/documents/MNC%20Annual%20Report%202023.pdf
  14. National Inuit Climate Change Strategy, Page 22 https://www.itk.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/ITK_Climate-Change-Strategy_English.pdf
  15. Arquette, M., Cole, M., Cook, K., et al. Holistic risk-based environmental decision-making: a Native perspective. Environmental Health Perspectives 110:suppl 2 (2002) CID: https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.02110s2259
  16. Zota, A.R., Shamasunder, B. Environmental health equity: moving toward a solution-oriented research agenda. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol 31, 399–400 (2021) https://doi.org/10.1038/s41370-021-00333-5